Apparently this film is hated by some and loved by others – there are no in-betweens. I fall into the 'love' camp. It is romantic, moving, and funny, and a potentially distasteful situation is made palatable by the fact that the characters are well drawn and not everything in the garden is rosy.
The situation is this: in 1951 a young couple, George (Alan Alda) and Doris (Ellen Burstyn) find themselves in the same small hotel on the California coast somewhere north of San Francisco. He is an accountant who does an old friend a favour by checking his books while taking a short holiday, she is a housewife travelling to her annual religious retreat in a convent. Dining separately, they are taken with each other, and begin to chat. The next morning they wake up in bed together, after a night of highly satisfactory love making.
Discussing what they have done and the possible consequences, it becomes obvious to both this is more than just a one-night fling, but while they have genuine feelings for each other, they also have existing marital and family commitments (both are married with children). Their solution is to meet for the weekend each year at the same time when their spouses expect them to be away from home. (A similar situation was explored to more farcical comic effect in Billy Wilder's Avanti in 1972). For the next two-and-a-half decades we follow the couple through slices of their lives, in 1956, 1961, 1966, 1972 and finally 1977, from their mid-late 20's to their early-mid 50's.
During these years the film covers everything life can throw at you, from birth to death and all points in between, including career developments and the way our attitudes and beliefs change over time. I don't want to plant spoilers here. If you haven't seen the film it would be wrong to be able to anticipate plot points, you have to see this film and its characters unfold for you.
Alda and Burstyn do an excellent job of making their roles, and their development, credible. From being a love-struck young man, Alda becomes serious, reflective, someone who has become wiser with experience (although the phrase “OK, maybe I didn't handle that well” recurs throughout his life), while Burstyn changes from housewife to hippie to educated, successful businesswoman and finally conformist grandmother. If anything the 'hippie' phase is a bit of a stretch as Doris should now be getting on for 40, but it does make the 1966 episode more dramatic and poignant. Both performances are Oscar-worthy (Burstyn was nominated but lost to Jane Fonda for Coming Home, but won a Best Actress Golden Globe, Alda was nominated for a Golden Globe but lost to Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait).
The sticking point for some viewers is whether it is right to celebrate a quarter century of infidelity, and could this happen? Could two people, who are supposed to be in love with each other, be content to meet for two days a year and stay married to long-term partners? Aren't they just selfish, self-indulgent hypocrites? The trick of the film is to show they are loving, caring people who actually make a sacrifice by limiting their relationship on these terms. They could have dumped husband/wife and family to run away and be happy together for 26 years, but recognised their responsibilities to others and didn't make that choice. At one point Alda actively intervenes to save Doris's marriage.
Ultimately the film says that while circumstances change, opinions change, and even our appearance changes with age and fashions, we all do have a soulmate to whom we can devote ourselves and love and support wholeheartedly. In my book, that's not a bad message, given the world we live in.