in Criterion Month

The Big Chill (1983)

I think anyone of my generation or younger who chooses to watch The Big Chill goes into it dreading they’ll find it relatable. It’s a movie about a group of white, boomer thirtysomethings who get together to talk about how they all sold out, got rich, and settled down. Basically, its about exactly the people and the mindset that led to our world being in such a dire state today. But I think writer-director Lawrence Kasdan is using the specific experience of his generation to make a broader observation about how growing old has affected every generation. More importantly, he’s letting us spend time with eight interesting characters in what I’d call a proto-hangout movie.

Back in the day, a group of friends at the University of Michigan were united by Alex Marshall, a science prodigy who turned down his scholarship in favor of dedicating his life to social work. A decade or so later, after separating to follow their own paths in life, the group reunites after Alex commits suicide. After the funeral, they decide to stay the weekend at the palatial home of Sarah (Glenn Close) and Harold (Kevin Kline). They are Sam (Tom Berenger), an actor who stars in a show that looks a lot like Magnum PI; Meg (Mary Kay Place), a lawyer who lost her idealism and will to defend “scum;” Michael (Jeff Goldblum), a journalist for People magazine with dreams of opening a club; Nick (William Hurt), a former radio psychologist (just like Frasier!) and Vietnam veteran; and Karen (JoBeth Williams), a homemaker whose husband, Richard (Don Galloway), sucks and quickly bails on the weekend. Also staying with Sarah and Harold is Chloe (Meg Tilly), a younger woman who was dating Alex for the last four months of his life.

The weekend is not particularly eventful, mostly it’s just these eight people having conversations and debates, getting stoned, and hooking up. Some of it is real boomer bullshit, like when Harold takes Nick on a jog and tells him that his small company is about to be bought out and that if Nick bought stock his investment would almost immediately skyrocket. Real cool. But the rest of it is revealing and interesting as we slowly find out who these characters are, who they used to be, and how they all got from point A to B. Sam is surprisingly down-to-earth, Meg isn’t as career-driven as she seems, and Michael, well, he’s Jeff Goldblum so he’s mostly quirky comic relief. Which, given that this is billed as a dramedy, is sorely needed.

I think the thing The Big Chill does the best are its musical montages, where it’s almost like this could have been thirtysomething boomer Garden State. The opening montage of people hearing about Alex’s suicide set to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” isn’t the best, but the movie immediately steps up its post-funeral scene which starts with Karen playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the organ then transitions to the Rolling Stones as the characters drive to the reception. These six minutes are peppered with so many great little character moments that I wish the whole movie could be like this. Also, don’t forget this scene is iconic enough to get (somewhat derisively) name-checked in High Fidelity.

There’s plenty of other soul, R&B, and rock music from the 1960s and 1970s in the movie to fill out a soundtrack that would be a good introduction to the era, or deeply nostalgic for people these characters’ ages. Which is also the point, there’s no music from the 1980s because these characters can only look backward. They had a chance to change the world and settled for personal comforts. Which, as relatable as that is, still brings me back to my fundamental opposition to them. As a result of their choices, their kids and grandkids will never get to enjoy the luxuries and opportunities they had. And when we complain about it, they will end up resenting us because, as seen in The Big Chill, they don’t take criticism of their failures well. So, I think to balance the equation, we should make a sequel now, with all these characters miserable in their seventies, slowly dying in nursing homes while they talk about making America great again. Come on, Kasdan, make it happen!

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