Friday 5 July 2013

Movie Review: The Big Chill (1983)

Baby Boomers hit early middle age, and they sit down to talk about where all their dreams have gone. The Big Chill is an engaging talkathon, but much like the generation itself, the film does drift into self-obsession.

A group of thirtysomethings who used to be close friends in college gather for the weekend at the house of married couple Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close), to mourn the suicide of their common college friend Alex. Sam (Tom Berenger) is now a TV series action star. Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a low-level journalist with dreams of opening a night club. War veteran Nick (William Hurt) is barely concealing numerous drug addictions that help him cope with injuries sustained in combat. Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a corporate lawyer, having sold out her principles, single but desperate to get pregnant. And Karen (JoBeth Williams) is a stay-at-home mom, having abandoned hopes of a writing career. With them is the cheerfully naive Chloe (Meg Tilly), Alex's much younger girlfriend and a stranger to the group.

As the former friends get reacquainted, they reminisce about the past, including Karen having a crush on Sam, Michael sleeping with Meg, and Sarah having an affair with Alex. Harold, now an established business owner with prospects of getting rich, tries to urge them to look to the future, but they all wonder where the idealistic dreams and ambitions of their youth went, now that they are all mostly unsatisfied with life in the mainstream. And they do their best to probe the tragedy of Alex taking his own life with no explanation.

A tableau of broken dreams resulting from the idealism of youth crashing against the realities of adult responsibilities, The Big Chill paints a stark picture of grown ups struggling with the concept. Like any group, the seven friends have mixed achievements, from television stardom (Sam) to useless drughead (Nick), but all carry the angst of having drifted far from the grand goals established in the lofty days of college. The generation that was supposed to change the world ended up conforming like any other, the difference being that the Baby Boomers need a lot of talking to work through the hurt.

And talk they do, The Big Chill a gabfest of self-examination and group think, co-written by director Lawrence Kasdan as a weekend-long therapy session filled with confessions, accusations, reflection, reconciliation, and reawakening. It is a tender examination of the human condition, filled with revelations, humour and pathos. But the film also gets tiresome, as none of the seven are necessarily intelligent or likable, and inward-focused intellect combined with a love of opining is not necessarily a stunning combination.

The ensemble cast is accomplished, Kasdan giving them all good opportunities to shine and develop as rounded characters. While there are no stand-out performances, Meg Tilly is excellent as Chloe, initially a fish out of water but possessing the strongest connection to Alex and finally surprising herself by both grieving and reconnecting with Alex through his friends.

The Big Chill boasted a nostalgic soundtrack of 1960s favourites including the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Procul Harum and The Beach Boys, and the film re-ignited interest and sales in the music enjoyed by Boomers in their youth.

The Big Chill does not reach any big conclusions, nor is it meant to. Instead it becomes clear that aspirations are useless without the discipline to make good decisions. This group will still drink too much, still do drugs, still break the rules (Harold engaging in insider trading), and still seek sex to satisfy selfish urges, and still they will wonder where it all went wrong.

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