Love does strange things to people. And Charlie is a little strange to begin with..
Good romantic comedies are hard to pull off. They depend on so many variables; the right cast, the right chemistry, sparkling dialogue, smart direction. But what they need, and what so many of them lack (hence the reason the genre is often such a wasteland of charmless creative bankruptcy), is some degree of honesty. We should be able to recognize some of ourselves or our own bumpy paths to finding a partner in these stories, which is almost impossibly when the vast majority of Hollywood romantic comedies is entirely dependent on misunderstandings and miscommunication and characters that behave like idiots and last-minute rushes to the airport. It’s all the worst.
But then you come upon a movie like 1979’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver (adapted from the 1976 Ann Beattie novel of the same name), and you remember that the genre is capable of exploring real people in real situations, approaching both with honesty and respect. Because it’s more a movie about the end of a relationship than the beginning of a new one, it’s able to look at the messiness of relationships in a way that the majority of Hollywood product would never touch, offering characters who are flawed and who make bad, hurtful choices at times. These are people we know. These are people we’ve been.
John Heard (Home Alone, C.H.U.D.) plays Charlie, a quirky government employee who falls hopelessly in love with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt, The World According to Garp) despite the fact that she is married. Unhappy in her current life, Laura leaves her husband Ox (Mark Metcalf, National Lampoon’s Animal House) and moves in with Charlie. But when she feels unprepared for just how affectionate and enthusiastic Charlie is towards their relationship, Laura begins to have doubts. The rest of the film traces the breakups, makeups, and wondering what could have been that often ring all too familiar for anyone who has ever felt like one got away.
Rarely given the opportunity to play the romantic leading man, John Heard’s casting in Chilly Scenes of Winter goes a long way towards making it the unconventional comedy drama it is. Heard is twitchy but likable — a guy we should be annoyed by but who wins us over with his sheer enthusiasm and excitability. Micklin’s screenplay is unique in that it gives as much time and emotional attention to Mary Beth Hurt’s character, who also acts in ways that, in a lesser movie, would make her totally unsympathetic but here just make her human. Chilly Scenes of Winter isn’t interested in “good” people or “bad” people or traditional ideas of right and wrong; it’s just people doing their best to find a measure of happiness and stumbling along the way.
The history of Chilly Scenes of Winter is rather interesting, which is hinted at in the Blu-ray’s special features but not explored in full detail. The movie was saddled with a happy ending and dumped into theaters in 1979 under the title Head Over Heels, but audiences expecting a light and upbeat romantic comedy rejected this messier, more honest film outright and the film failed at the box office. It was given another chance three years later, when United Artists re-released it under its original title Chilly Scenes of Winter and removed the last few minutes. This time, the movie did much better; I can’t speculate as to whether that’s because audiences were more attuned to the film’s wavelength in 1982 or because it was marketed more as the movie it actually is, but whatever the reason I’m glad that the story of this film has a happy ending. It deserves that.
Now Twilight Time has released Chilly Scenes of Winter on Blu-ray in its usual limited run of 3,000 units, which feels right for a small, modest title like this. The 1080p HD transfer is solid, but this is the kind of movie that’s never going to look very eye-popping even in high def; it has the muted color palette and general softness that’s commonplace for late ‘70s productions, but skin tones are accurately represented and clothing textures stand out. There’s a lossless mono audio track that delivers the dialogue clearly and cleanly, which is what really matters for a dialogue-dependent film like this. As with almost all of Twilight Time’s releases, the score is available as its own isolated audio track, too. The only other special features are the trailer (for the 1982 re-release under the correct title) and a commentary by writer/director Joan Micklin Silver and producer Amy Robinson. Though the pair touches on the drama surrounding the release, they don’t go into much detail and their conversation, while informative and generally good-natured, features a number of gaps. Unfortunately, Twilight Time has not included the original “happy” ending from the ’79 version as a deleted scene, which really seems like a missed opportunity to demonstrate how just a few minutes of footage can drastically alter a film’s overall effect.
A movie like Chilly Scenes of Winter is exactly why I’m so grateful for the opportunity to review films for a site like DVD Verdict. It’s a small title that was completely off my radar and one which I might have overlooked if not for the chance to watch and review it, and I’m so glad I did. Not only did I get to see something I think is truly special, but now I also get to publish my appreciation of the movie and hopefully turn others on to it, too. It’s nice to have a voice when it comes to a film like this.