There are certain films that truly are “You just had to be there” films. These are the movies that were apparently loved by contemporary audiences but, when viewed today, it’s difficult to see just what exactly everyone was getting so excited about. Sometimes, this is because the film itself was so influential and has been copied by so many other films that the original has had its power diluted. And then, sometimes, it’s just a case that the film was never that good to begin with.
I’m guessing that The Big Chill must be one of those “you just had to be there” type of films. First released in 1983, The Big Chill was nominated for best picture. If you look the film up over at the imdb, you’ll find lots of comments from people who absolutely adore this film. However, when I watched the film as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I have to admit that my reaction can be best summed in one word.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that The Big Chill was a bad film. To be honest, it was neither memorably bad nor remarkably good. Instead, it just was. Overall, the performances were good, the direction was shallow, and the screenplay was occasionally good and occasionally shallow but mostly, it was the epitome of serviceable.
At the start of The Big Chill, Alex is dead. With the exception of a scene where his corpse is being prepared for burial, Alex never actually appears on screen. (Originally, Kevin Costner was cast to play the role in a flashback but director Lawrence Kasdan cut the scene.) What little we learn about Alex, we learn from listening to the other characters in the film talk about him. For instance, Alex was apparently brilliant but troubled. He attended the University of Michigan in the 1960s and was close to 7 other politically radical students. While everyone else was busy selling out their ideals, Alex stayed true to his and, as a result, he ended up spending his life depressed and poor. Alex ultimately ended up committing suicide, an act that leads to his 7 friends reuniting for his funeral.
Opening with Alex’s funeral and taking place over one long weekend, The Big Chill follows Alex’s friends as they try to figure out why Alex committed suicide and debate whether or not they’ve sold out their college ideals. They also spend a lot of time listening to the music of the youth, getting high, watching a football game, and washing dishes.
(Interestingly enough, they spend the weekend in the exact same house where Alex committed suicide. Which, to be honest, I would think would be kind of creepy.)
There’s Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close), who are the unofficial grown ups of the group. It was at their vacation home that Alex committed suicide and, over the course of the film, we find out that Alex and Sarah had a brief affair. Harold owns a company that makes running shoes and, to at least one friend’s horror, is now good friends with the local police. Sarah, meanwhile, splits her time between crying in the shower and smiling beatifically at her friends.
(Incidentally, throughout the film, Kevin Kline speaks in one of the least convincing southern accents that I’ve ever heard…)
Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a former public defender who, after deciding that all of her poverty-stricken clients really were scum, has now become a real estate attorney. Meg wants a baby and is hoping that one of the men at the funeral might be willing to impregnate her. Meg is a chain smoker so good luck, unborn child. Before Alex killed himself, she had an argument with him. (“That’s probably why he killed himself,” someone suggests.)
I liked Karen (JoBeth Williams) because she’s prettier than Meg and less condescending than Sarah. She’s unhappily married to an advertising executive named Richard (Dan Galloway). As they drive to the cemetery, Richard tells Karen that he can’t believe her famous friends all turned out to be so boring. Karen is unhappy in her marriage and, after Richard returns home and leaves her in South Carolina for the weekend, decides that she wants a divorce.
That’s good news for Sam (Tom Berenger), an actor who is best known for playing private detective J.T. Lancer on television. Sam is upset that nobody takes him or his career seriously. Meg was hoping that Sam would be the father of her baby but, instead, Sam is more interested in Karen.
And then there’s Nick (William Hurt), who is a former radio psychologist-turned-drug dealer. Nick was wounded in Vietnam and is impotent as a result. In case you somehow forget that fact, don’t worry. Nick brings it up every few minutes.
Michael (Jeff Goldblum) was my favorite among the men because he’s at least willing to admit that he’s a self-centered jerk. Michael is a former underground journalist who now works for People Magazine. Nobody seems to like Michael and yet, he’s still invited to stay over the weekend. Personally, I like to think that he does so just to get on everyone’s nerves. Good for him.
And finally, there’s Chloe (Meg Tillis), who was Alex’s much younger girlfriend and who doesn’t seem to be impressed with any of Alex’s friends (with the exception, of course, of impotent old Nick).
I have to admit that I probably would have responded more to The Big Chill if it was actually about my generation, as opposed to being about my grandparents. Someday, someone my age will make a movie about a bunch of college friends reunited for a funeral and it will be filled with my music and my cultural references and I’ll think it’s brilliant. And then, a 30 years later, some snotty little film reviewer will watch and probably say, “Meh. Old people.”
Such is life.