The Big Chill

Dir: Lawrence Kasdan, 1983. Starring: T. Berenger, G. Close, J. Goldblum, W. Hurt, K. Kline, M. K. Place, M. Tilly, J. Williams. Drama.
The Big Chill

Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).

Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).

Although it truly is an ensemble cast, with every character sharing almost equal screen time, some characters stand out in the ensemble better than others. William Hurt, because of Body Heat (and the earlier Ken Russell cult film, Altered States), was the most established actor in the cast. Glenn Close was right there having gotten a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her first theatrical film, The World According To Garp. And Kevin Kline had been brilliant opposite Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. For the most part though these actors were all known for their stage work and considered the "next generation," except for Jeff Goldblum who had been knocking around Hollywood for years, popping up most memorably in Philip Kaufman’s fantastic Invasion Of The Body Snatchers remake and on the short-lived TV series Tenspeed And Brownshoe.

Ex-scientific genius Alex, who dropped out for a "seemingly random series of occupations" finally just committed suicide. After his funeral, seven of his ex-college posse end up spending the weekend at the home of the very successful Sarah and Harold (Close and Kline), along with Alex’s younger, ethereal girlfriend, Chloe (Meg Tilly). After college Sarah and Harold married and now have kids, as does the married Karen (JoBeth Williams) - her drab husband Richard (Don Galloway) leaves early. Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a single lawyer who yearns to have a child. The rest of the guys are Sam (Tom Berenger), an actor who has become a TV star on a lame Magnum PI type of show; Michael (Goldblum), a shallow writer for People Magazine, looking for investors for his new nightclub; and finally Nick (Hurt), a Vietnam vet and ex-host of a radio psychology show, now a misfit drug user and dealer.

Since their good old days of '60s radicalism at the University Of Michigan each has had to compromise their college idealism. Though most have found some level of success, they spend the weekend lamenting it as well as coming to grips with the fact that they let one of their own slip away. Nick calls out the others for their failures to come to reality with Alex’s death. "The truth is, for most of us, Alex died a long time ago." It's one of many smart pieces of dialog which the film is crammed with. There are no wasted lines or moments; everything is a clue as to who these people are. Like a puzzle, the complicated relationships the characters have with each other, and had with Alex, come to light. It’s a film that even after several viewings you can still learn more, with just the small details.

The biggest star of The Big Chill may have been the soundtrack. It was a smorgasbord of '60s Motown, Creedence, The Stones, and Smokey. That music came back to representing that generation. Suddenly commercials which were trying to appeal to yuppies were scored with The Rascals and Three Dog Night. The music in the film often represented the changes the characters were going through, or striving to go through. The reunion weekend left some of the characters with new directions and outlooks, while others left the house the same as when they got there. Besides the sheer entertainment of the film, it’s almost as interesting for the impact it had on the people involved.

Though Goldblum and Place have some of the funniest lines in the film, in some ways it’s Hurt’s Nick that is at the center of the film. He is the one they all seem to secretly admire and at the same time be the most disappointed with. It’s a cool performance by Hurt. He would be a critical and award darling for much of the '80s, scoring Oscar nominations for Children Of A Lesser God and Broadcast News and winning one for his damaged transvestite in Kiss Of The Spider Woman, before morphing into a strange character (over) actor in the '90s (A History Of Violence, etc.). I still think the two early Kasdan films were the best roles of his career.

Glenn Close has probably gone on to have the biggest career of anyone involved with the film, on the stage, film, and TV, including the terrific films Reversal Of Fortune and Dangerous Liaisons. She has probably been a just a few notches below Meryl Streep as the actress of her generation. Goldblum has been a reliable funny actor in mega hits like Jurassic Park and Independence Day, as well as giving a truly inspired performance in David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Though Kline has had a nice career in film and theater, good in the great film The Ice Storm and winning an Oscar for the dated comedy A Fish Called Wanda, he hasn't quite lived up to the promise of his performance in Sophie’s Choice.

The rest of the cast has not fared as well. Berenger got an Oscar nomination for Platoon and Tilly for Agnes Of God, otherwise both have not had big careers. She seems to have retired and he works a lot (it’s been not much of note, though he did recently pop up in the overrated Inception). They both however have fared better than Williams and Place. Williams was the mom in a couple of the Poltergeist films, otherwise nothing memorable. And Mary Kay Place, who is so funny and moving in The Big Chill as she seeks a man to inseminate her - though she has done a lot of film and TV over the years - I can’t recall her being in anything much except for the creepy Laura Dern/Treat Williams drama Smooth Talk.

Of everyone involved with the film, maybe most disappointing of all is director Kasdan. Like a character from his own script, he never lived up to the promise. After Body Heat and The Big Chill it looked like he was going to be a major director. Unfortunately, he never matched his first two films. He would try the yuppie ensemble again with the insipid Grand Canyon and even his first Western, Silverado, had an icky yuppie taste to it. He hasn’t worked since Dreamcatcher in 2003, his unbelievably awful adaptation of the Stephen King novel. Maybe like Hurt’s Nick he has given up and dropped out. Or like some of the other yuppies in the film whose dreams became money-making schemes, maybe Kasdan is just sitting on that big pile of Star Wars cash he made and jamming to some Procol Harum.


The Big Chill was nominated for 3 Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close), Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 2, 2010 5:05pm
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