The Big Chill

Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan & Barbara Benedek
Stars: Tom Berenger (Sam Weber), Glenn Close (Sarah Cooper), Jeff Goldblum (Michael Gold), William Hurt (Nick Carlton), Kevin Kline (Harold Cooper), Mary Kay Place (Meg Jones), Meg Tilly (Chloe), JoBeth Williams (Karen Bowens), Don Galloway (Richard Bowens), James Gillis (Minister), Ken Place (Peter the Cop)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1983
Country: U.S.
The Big Chill Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Big ChillJust because a film is a generational touchstone, that does not necessarily mean it is very good, which is exactly the case with Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill. An early Reagan-era ensemble dramedy about a group of college friends who considered themselves late-’60s radicals but have now settled into various sorts of comfortable bourgeois conformity, the film purports to provide insight into the Baby Boomer generation’s transition from leftist politics to yuppie consumer culture, but all it really demonstrates is how self-absorption is the same regardless of your standing on the political spectrum. It also doesn’t help that we never see any of these characters in their radical days, and the way they’re portrayed by an admittedly fine cast of then-rising actors makes it almost impossible to believe that they ever had long hair, burned flags, or denounced the war. We never hear what their ideas were or how they planned to change the world; it’s just presented as a given. Maybe the point is that all traces of their shared past have been eradicated by their current lives of compliance with the mainstream, but it makes it difficult to engage emotionally with their transition and sense of loss.

The Big Chill is, though, first and foremost a comedy, despite the fact that it is predicated on a suicide. And not just any suicide, but the dramatic wrist-slitting of the group’s central member, a man named Alex who initially drew them all together as students at the University of Michigan (the writer/director’s alma mater) but was unable to find any kind of happiness or sense of place in his post-collegiate life. Much of the film’s dialogue revolves around the various characters discussing Alex and what he meant to them, although we never actually see him aside from close-ups during the film’s opening credits while his corpse is dressed for his funeral (the hiding of the fact that he is a corpse until the last-minute reveal of his wrist sutures is a bit of queasy visual gag).

The funeral takes place in a picturesque small town in South Carolina, which is also the location of a vacation home owned by Harold and Sarah Cooper (Kevin Kline and Glenn Close), the only members of the group who married each other. Harold has made big bucks with a running shoe company and Sarah is a doctor, so they are awash in material comfort, something for which Harold refuses to apologize. Their large, palatial vacation house becomes the film’s primary setting, as the out-of-town friends who arrive for the funeral end up staying the weekend, drawn by their desire to reunite with their old friends, rehash old arguments, and reminisce about the good ol’ days (forgetting, of course, that those were days of turbulence and violence and discontent). There is sense of joy in being together again, but it also reminds them of what they have given up and how they are no longer the people they once were.

Thus, each character represents some facet of contemporary complacency, and each is shallow in a way that represents the betrayal of something potentially noble. The most shallow character (and also, by the way, the funniest) is Jeff Goldblum’s Michael Gold, who has sold out the call of journalism—that watchdog institution that helped reveal to the American public the horrors of Vietnam and forced Nixon out of office—to become a hack writer for People magazine. The unhappiest of the group are Meg Jones (Mary Kay Place’s), who left her underpaid position as a legal aid helping the down-and-out for corporate law, and Karen Bowens (JoBeth Williams), who married a dull, by-the-book advertising executive whom she is already planning to leave. Sam Weber (Tom Berenger) is a Tom Selleck-esque television star who headlines a cheesy action series, a clear betrayal of the art of acting and theater. That leaves only William Hurt’s Nick Carlton, a veteran of Vietnam who has many internal scars and makes his living dealing drugs, mostly to himself, thus representing that banality of being constantly stoned, rather than the late-’60s mind-altering, mind-expanding ethos of drug experimentation. The film’s final character, Chloe (Meg Tilly), is an outsider, a member of the next generation who was living with Alex when he killed himself. The fact that she is wide-eyed but almost entirely devoid of any ideas or nostalgia (“I don’t like talking about the past as much as you guys do,” she says at point) suggests that Kasdan sees the then-current generation as a new kind of failure—one that doesn’t lose its ideals because it didn’t have any to begin with, although she at least has the virtue of blunt honesty.

As written by Kasdan and television writer Barbara Benedek, The Big Chill has a number of great character moments surrounded by a lot of unrewarding self-examination and rumination. The characters aren’t insufferable by any means (the actors are too good to let that happen), but they’re not particularly engaging either, except in their symbolic capacities. The group scenes tend to be the best, as Kasdan displays a real flair for directing his ensemble cast and keeping the energy up without getting messy. Throughout the film various characters pair off and have “revealing” moments, which also tend to be the worst, if only because they are so telegraphed and obvious. Kasdan and Benedek also weave through a subplot involving Meg, who is the very portrait of dissatisfaction, trying to sleep with each of the men in the group because she hears her biological clock ticking and wants to have a baby. The eventual resolution of this issue has a certain logic to it given that the characters come from the era of the sexual revolution, but it still feels both creepy and a bit pat in the way it turns conventional sexual morality on its head.

Although it doesn’t work all that well as a film, The Big Chill is notable for its incredible soundtrack, which assembled some of the greatest rock and R&B hits of the mid- to late 1960s, many of which were ripe for rediscovery in the pre-digital early ’80s: Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman,” Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion,” and so on (although, come to think of it, the soundtrack may have helped lead to commercial appropriation of Motown, as many of these songs were then recycled for ad campaigns ranging from California raisins to Jordache jeans). Kasdan deploys the songs in various ways throughout the film, and he should be commended for not falling into the trap of trying to use them to comment directly on the action. Rather, he seems to have chosen them primarily for their mood and their energy, which seeps into the various scenes and gives them more kick than they otherwise would have. Even if the film isn’t timeless, the soundtrack certainly is.

The Big Chill Criterion Collection Blu-ray / DVD Combo Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • New interview with writer/director Lawrence Kasdan
  • Reunion of cast and crew from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival
  • Documentary from 1998 on the making of the film
  • Deleted scenes
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by writer and filmmaker Lena Dunham and a 1983 piece by critic Harlan Jacobson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 29, 2014

    The Big Chill’s new, restored 4K digital film transfer, supervised by director of photography John Bailey and approved by director Lawrence Kasdan, looks great. The film has a nice, although not particularly memorable look to it, with a broad array of environments, ranging from the subdued interiors of the main house, to the bright greens of the yard outside, to the fog-enshrouded main street of the nearby town. The transfer was taken from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored, which has left it looking virtually flawless. Criterion also offers two soundtrack options: You can listen to the original monaural mix (transferred from the original 35mm magnetic tracks) or an alternate remastered 5.1-channel surround mix, which is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. The remixed soundtrack, which was created using stereo music masters, 3-track dialogue, and music and effects stems, obviously benefits the Motown music the most, which now fills the surround channels, while the dialogue remains clear in the front soundstage along with minor environmental effects.
    The supplement’s on Criterion’s disc build on what was previously available on Sony’s 1999 DVD. From that disc we get an hour-long retrospective documentary about the making of the film and 9 minutes of deleted scenes (which does include the infamous excised scene that featured Kevin Costner playing Alex). New to the Criterion edition is a 12-minute video interview with director Lawrence Kasdan and almost 45 minutes of footage of the cast and crew reunion at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where Kasdan and actors Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, and JoBeth Williams were interview by film critic Scott Foundas. The insert booklet features a surprisingly poignant essay by writer and filmmaker Lena Dunham and a 1983 piece by critic Harlan Jacobson that was originally published in Film Comment.

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    Overall Rating: (2)

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