Director, Lawrence Kasdan captures the essence of an awkward limbo for the middle-aged, seemingly unprepared to deal with their own maturity and definitely not ready to surrender the ghost of their youth in The Big Chill (1983); an angst and cliché-ridden baby boom-boomer cult classic, relying much too heavily on deftly scripted zingers to dig its ensemble cast out of virtually any lingering doubts and self-pities. Here is a film in which even the suicide of one of their own (the never seen Kevin Costner, cast as the corpse, Alex) takes the proverbial backseat to a weekend-long probing of the not-so-distant past; old grudges, never forgotten crushes, brewing infidelities and biological clocks ticking in tandem - in short, the breadth of mid-life crises come tumbling forth; our protagonists bemoaning what they’ve become, if only because the world hasn’t come around to their insular way of thinking. Get over it. Learn to live with disappointment! I have.
But the characters in The Big Chill just can’t seem to get over this hump, despite the fact all have inevitably moved on with their adult lives. Two great one liners (and there are many in the Kasdan/Barbara Benedek screenplay) summarize Kasdan’s premise for the picture: the first uttered by our I Mother Earth denizen of this dysfunctional brood, Sarah Cooper (Glenn Close) “I always felt I was at my best with you people”, the second, astutely given to the movie’s atypical frantic feminist (every late 70’s/early 80’s movie seems to have one) – herein, deflated and disillusioned at not finding the ideal man: attorney, Meg Jones (Mary Kay Place) – “It’s a cold world out there. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little frosty myself.” In some ways, Sarah and Meg represent the equipoise of the female perspective; the other two women in the ensemble (Meg Tilly’s Chloe, the uninformed contortionist gal pal of the deceased, and JoBeth Williams’ Karen Bowens - a milquetoast, who sold her principles for the ‘comfortable’ but unremarkable life with hubby, Richard – and regrets it) never go beyond the hook and worm stage of this fishing expedition.
The male spectrum is even more disingenuous; Harold Cooper (Kevin Kline) mourning a best friend, who also just happened to be sleeping with his wife. Sam Weber (Tom Berenger cast as an actor playing a TV rip off of Magnum P.I.) is struggling to reconcile his fictional self’s overt testosterone-ramped machismo with his own demure masculinity. “In Hollywood, I don't know who to trust. I don't know who likes me or why they even do like me,” admits Sam. There’s also People Magazine writer, Michael Gold (Jeff Goldblum); so shut off from his own emotions he’s given most of the movie’s pithy retorts – the proverbial smart ass on practically any subject the others care to bring up – particularly Alex’s untimely passing (“It’s a dead subject”), and commenting on the wake itself as an “…amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come.” These are very funny, if astutely stinging lines and they continue to work even when the story doesn’t.
Finally, there’s Nick Carlton (William Hurt); diminished by his Viet Nam service who, like Alex, has since foundered badly in his private life and isn’t afraid to open the floodgates of cynicism, meant to shake the others free from their rose-colored melancholy. “A long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time,” Nick coldly reasons, “…It was easy back then. No one had a cushier berth than we did. It's not surprising our friendship could survive that. It's only out there, in the real world, that it gets tough.”
Alas, The Big Chill explores each character’s multifaceted complexities with only occasional sincerity; thanks mostly to Kasdan’s hand-picked ensemble. None were major stars when the film came out. Most went on to have memorable careers thereafter. But the story, scripted by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek continues to lack impetus. Our weekend-long soul search includes listening – and sporadically dancing – to an interminable retro soundtrack of mid-60’s early 70’s pop/rock hits, inserted whenever Kasdan feels the need to take a break from ‘too much reality’; diffused even further by some mellow personal history shared over recreational marijuana, ample bottles of flowing wine and a few none-too-serious skirmishes between ‘old friends’ destined to remain such even after the final fade out. And let’s not forget illicit sex – or rather, sex between friends, sanctioned by their spouses. I’m sorry. I must have missed the chapter in Masters and Johnson where the penis was described as a share toy. But, I digress.
The Big Chill is a film without a story to tell – all character-driven and centered on the proverbial elephant in the room no one wants to talk about – Alex’s death. The ‘we’ generation, having left the cocoon of campus life long ago and since morphed into its navel-gazing ‘me’ derivative are, generally speaking, an unsympathetic lot. The most altruistic moment in the picture goes to Sarah loaning Harold to Meg for the night so Meg can conceive his illegitimate child and fulfil her own selfish desire to become a single mother. Big-hearted/empty-headed liberalism run amuck, indeed; and don’t we already know Sarah is prepared to hold it against her ever-lovin’ man, telling him with a deliciously vindictive grin the next morning “Do you have to look so pleased with yourself?” – the pot calling the kettle black. Remember, Sarah and Alex were lovers. But their infidelity was predicated on nothing more humanitarian than abject lust; Sarah spending a quiet moment, balling her eyes out while crouched naked in the shower, even as Harold and the other are gathered in the living room to debate the many reasons why and feel guilty and sorry for themselves.
Kasdan wisely keeps nearly all of his scenes confined to the rooms of Beaufort, South Carolina’s antebellum plantation house; production designer, Ida Random finding a balance between Kasdan’s insistence on art deco and her own interpretation of a softer – and more naturalistic – look for the film. Sequestering our stars in a few claustrophobic spaces ensures they can’t get away from what’s eating them from the inside out. But the other great strength Kasdan manages to imbue The Big Chill with is an intuitive use of the camera to capture even the subtlest nuances in body language. There’s always purpose behind his slow moving pans and zooms; expertly timed as a result of a lengthy gestation and rehearsal period.
On one point, Kasdan remained adamant: a lengthy flashback to summarize and emphasize the perspective each character had come from in their collective past. But the flashback became a bone of contention between Kasdan and his editor, Carol Littleton, who astutely concurred from the outset, it was unnecessary. Repeatedly chastised for this opinion, Littleton allowed Kasdan’s decision to stand – attempting to relocate the flashback from its originally intended place at the end of the movie to several other spots, including as an extended prologue. It just never worked. Eventually, Kasdan realized this too – particularly after two sneak peak previews – and the flashback, featuring virtually all of Kevin Costner’s scenes as Alex, fell to the cutting room floor.
Initially, Columbia studio president, Frank Price did not want to make The Big Chill in hindsight, a big mistake. After all, Columbia was in dire financial straits, buffeted by a check-forging scandal in the early 1970’s and an antitrust lawsuit filed against wily Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian to prevent his hostile corporate takeover of the studio at the end of the decade. Columbia could narrowly afford to invest in a quiet little feature about existential crises that had no precedence to pay out; especially when summer blockbusters had fast become the norm in Hollywood. On the flip side, The Big Chill cost relatively little to shoot and grossed a then impressive $56,342,711.
Our story begins with bad news – played in silence - before segueing to the mortuary’s preparation of Alex’s remains, cleverly disguised by Kasdan as perhaps a bit of kink; close-ups of long blood-red female fingernails gingerly straightening a man’s necktie, tightening his belt buckle and affixing his cufflinks, before gently turning over his wrists to reveal three deep gashes stitched, pulling up a crisp white dress shirt to conceal them. We meet the friends of the deceased; Harold choking back the tears as he delivers a eulogy from the pulpit. Only Nick arrives late, too busy ingesting from his small pharmaceutical stash. As Karen strikes up an organist’s rendition of The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, the mourners file out; Nick offering Meg a lift to the cemetery; Harold accompanying Sarah, and Sam driving Michael and Chloe – who openly admits to being disappointed at not asked by Alex’s family to ride up front with them; explaining a moment later “I always wanted to ride in a limo!”
Kasdan’s early set-up of the friends’ collective grief – or rather, their different ways of coping, either through laughter, tears or indifference – is highly commendable. In just a few brief exchanges he gives us all we need to know about these archetypes. As example: Karen’s fastidiousness as the ‘unhappy’ homemaker is captured in her compliment to Sarah during the reception, “I know this is hard but it’s all beautiful.” Sarah asserts, “Yeah, we put on a great funeral”, to which Michael glibly suggests, “Maybe I’ll have mine here.” The leitmotif of good humor is dealt a crippling blow after Sarah quietly replies, “We give first priority to people who kill themselves in one of our bathrooms…that was a terrible thing to say... I don't know why I said it.”
The Big Chill is peppered in such moments of conflicted introspection. The writing is, in fact, what keeps the pace of the movie on its steady course. Arguably, it’s also what deflates the drama from experiencing any distinctive highs or lows. Instead, all of the action occurs on a fairly nondescript middle plain. Is this life? Perhaps. Does it work as a movie? Hmmmm… Michael wastes no time hitting on Chloe who shows little remorse during the reception at Sarah and Harold’s plantation house. And although he openly criticizes his place of employment as purveyors of rank gossip – even apologizing to Sam for a story People Magazine ran on the breakup of his marriage – Michael, nevertheless, uses his very first opportunity to skulk off to an upstairs telephone and beg his editor, Jim, to do a story on his friends’ grief – calling the piece ‘the lost hope.’ Michael’s way of coping with a personal loss or just a bottom feeder looking for his next fix?
In the meantime, Meg pours out her own ‘cry me a river’ to Sarah in the kitchen, rationalizing her deplorable taste in men thus: “They're either married or gay. And if they're not gay, they've just broken up with the most wonderful woman in the world, or they've just broken up with a bitch who looks exactly like me. They're in transition from a monogamous relationship and they need more space. Or they're tired of space, but they just can't commit. Or they want to commit, but they're afraid to get close. They want to get close…you don't want to get near them.”
All this is exposition – or rather, fodder, meant to engage and whet our appetites for deeper wellsprings of emotion to follow. But the real tragedy in The Big Chill is we never go deeper than this over the course of the next 90 minutes. Kasdan moves us into the aftermath of the wake where presumably more primitive emotions will be allowed to run their course; Sarah’s breakdown in the shower; Nick’s bitterness and relief Alex didn’t leave a suicide note for their morbid satisfaction; Sarah, having regained her composure, now rejoining the group to admit, “I know he wasn't happy. That doesn't tell you much. I'd no idea how bad it was. I think he purposely wanted to cut off from all of us because he was so unhappy with where he was at.” All eyes in the room turn to Chloe, the last person to see Alex alive, and by her own admission, having had the most incredible sex of her life with Alex only hours before his suicide. When Karen asks for a confirmation of Alex’s sadness, all Chloe can do is shrug her shoulders and admit, “I don't know. We had some good times. I haven't met many happy people in my life. How do they act?”
As the group prepares to retire for the night they are decidedly no closer to the truth about Alex’s suicide. The Big Chill should have had more to say on this, and, the screenplay does, in fact, include a moment of introspective dialogue, delivered by Sam, who suggests everyone is avoiding having ‘the talk’ because they are afraid to face their own mortality and emotions; the weekend devolving into a series of rekindled friendships that, without Alex’s death, would never have happened. But Kasdan is really the one afraid to pursue the matter; giving us needless – if deftly executed – bits of business; the first between Nick and Meg. She is all prepared to seduce him in an upstairs attic for the selfish sake of having him sire her child, only to be chagrined when Nick informs her of an old war wound preventing him from experiencing any kind of sexual pleasure. By his own admission, Nick can’t even jerk off. This too might have been a moment rife for personal discovery. But again, Kasdan dilutes it, now with a shameless bit of slapstick; a tiny bat terrorizing the couple and forcing Meg downstairs. Harold and Sam rush upstairs with tennis rackets to defend themselves. Inadvertently, they allow a second bat to enter the room through an open skylight.
As everyone settles in for the night, Sarah gets high on some recreational marijuana, attempting to engage Harold in a conversation by crawling back and forth over him in bed. He isn’t interested however, and, in the early morning fog we discover why. Nick and Harold take to the deserted streets for a jog, Harold confiding in Nick about Sarah’s extramarital affair with Alex. Nick reaffirms Sarah’s love for Harold is genuine. “She didn’t marry Alex,” he explains. It’s a moot point, perhaps. For love and marriage seem fairly divisible by increments of jealousy and regret. As the fog breaks, another more cerebral kind is about to descend upon our mourner. Karen sends Richard away – back home to their kids. In fact, it’s her feeble brushoff; the very sight of Sam rekindling home fires and holocausts of lust from within. Interestingly, Sam is, at first, obtuse – or squarely unaware of Karen’s renewed affections. Even after she makes them abundantly clear, he cannot bring himself to the edge of that very still water, using Karen’s children as an excuse. She bitterly chastises him for it, her vitriol shocking and honest.
A short while later, a state trooper, Peter (Ken Place) arrives with Nick in tow, making inquiries as to whether or not he is Harold’s weekend guest. Nick is belligerent - and high. The situation is diffused when Peter suggests he will look the other way on a possible drug charge if Sam can show him how his TV character, J.T. Lancer, is able to leap the hood of his sports car and land in the driver’s seat. Nick tells Sam to ignore the request. But in his attempt to satisfy Peter’s query, Sam’s leg becomes lodged in the car door, causing him to trip and cut his forearm. While Sarah – a doctor by trade – rushes for her medical bag and First Aid kit, Peter apologizes to Harold, who encourages him to forget the whole darn mess. After Peter leaves, Nick and Harold have words: Harold informing Nick he will brook no more of his nonsense. “What is it with you?” he asks Nick, while not really wanting to heart the answer, “Is jail another experience you want to try? See what that's like? You know, I live here. This place means something to me. I'm dug in. I don't need this shit.”
The character of Nick is, perhaps, the closest Kasdan ever comes to showing us what the last act of Alex’s life must have been; a sad loner, drifting from one hapless profession to the next, completely lost and virtually abandoned his aspirations, now relying on cocaine to get him through a fallow period that can only end in death, regrettably, the malaise come to envelope and take control over his life. Nick and Chloe are, in some ways, kindred spirits; she – the gentle sparrow unwilling to give up or give in – even to feel sorry for herself; he – like a wounded animal in desperate need of someone to sincerely look after him. Will it end for them the same way it did for Alex? Kasdan is circumspect in his assumptions people cannot change the trajectory of their lives. Alas, he is severely unrealistic in the resolutions he provides as counterpoint to his drama.
The last act of The Big Chill is so optimistic it borders on becoming a parody of all that has gone before it. In taking a phone call from their son, Sarah is asked to put Auntie Meg on the telephone to thank her for a birthday gift; her doting exchange with the child suddenly sparking an epiphany. Sarah can kill two birds with one stone. Perhaps still feeling guilty about her own infidelity with Alex, she can bring Harold down to her level by sanctioning a one night stand between him and Meg on the pretext of helping her best friend conceive a child by the only man she would likely trust with her body. Lest we remember, these were still the days before artificial insemination. In the meantime, Nick and Sam have a confrontation; Sam storming out of the house for a moonlit walk, interrupted by Karen. She chides him again, confessing her desperation to have him make love to her. There is a queer sort of mechanical quality to what follows; Kasdan cross-cutting between Harold and Meg’s measured and tender lovemaking in an upstairs bedroom, and Sam and Karen’s frenzied exchange of bodily fluids on the front lawn.
In another part of this maison, Michael makes a last ditch play for Chloe – again, politely shot down – she more interested in Nick; already knowing he cannot satisfy her sexually. But Chloe takes Nick to the old cottage on the property – Alex’s favorite hangout and confides he reminds her of Alex. Nick directly addresses her on this point, “I’m not him!” Nevertheless, Alex’s spirit seems to be all around them; Nick finally grounded and having a renewed sense of purpose in his own life. He will remain here – at least, for a time.
The next morning, Michael glibly comments “How’d everyone sleep last night…did anyone sleep last night?” Sarah and Meg exchange telling glances and Michael informs the group his plans to raise money for a new nightclub in New York are dead. He has decided to return to his first love – writing – quit his current job at the magazine and pursue his dreams to pen the great American novel. Asked where he intends to work on this opus magnum, Michael teases Harold and Sarah he intends to live with them in perpetuity. In fact, none of the friends are ever planning to leave. It’s college all over again. Only this time they are a family with unbreakable bonds of friendship likely to last.
Since its debut, The Big Chill has been endlessly imitated and parodied, though arguably never duplicated. Beneath the obviousness of its self-involved baby boomers struggling to dissect and reinvent their lives, Lawrence Kasdan gives us a more fruitful and analytic critique. Life has rendered these characters unrecognizable to themselves. They’re not yet ready to assume the mantle of responsibility as their parents did; the last gasps of their own ‘let it all hang out’ generation unable to deny a deeper reality each time they look in the mirror; that time has indeed moved on – if not, quite yet, without them. Kasdan exposes commonalities between adolescence and middle-age; both seemingly catching us off guard and wreaking havoc on our ideals and sense of self. In youth, we test the physical boundaries of our mortality. In middle-age we refuse to accept the march of time – while realizing - we are no longer able to feign youth as an excuse for bad behavior. Forcing these characters to confront their own mortality via the unexpected loss of one of their own sets up an extreme conflict from within; Kasdan suggesting reflection can be more damaging than therapeutic.
There is, to be sure, a narcissistic quality to this exercise; each character much too self-involved to truly empathize with what the others are going through and strangely even more incapable of deducing they might each be going through the same motions apart. In absence of any greater understanding, any rank emotional outburst or response in and of the moment will do. Hence, we can almost accept Sarah’s decision to pimp her husband out for the night. We might even buy into Meg and Harold’s unencumbered enjoyment of this ‘sex between friends’ moment, transpiring with no greater emotional bond beyond the biological. The film makes no comment on this new life being brought into this world a bastard – one, likely to impact and perhaps, even intrude on the future of their friendships.
While Kasdan handles the encounter between Harold and Meg with great gentleness, he is disturbingly visceral in illustrating the sex between Karen and Sam. Theirs is not a sharing, per say, but an expulsion of life-time regrets; a sort of distasteful mutual dissatisfaction achieved only via the orgasm itself, but with no lasting commitment, and, arguably, not even the remotest promise of one. The only reality for Nick and Chloe is one of celibacy; and yet, of all the relationships in The Big Chill this seems the most likely to endure, perhaps because each participant has gone through their own trial by fire; Chloe unsure of how to react; Nick, belatedly prepared to step up to the plate and surrender his prolonged and disturbingly self-destructive adult behavior. In the end, this leaves Jeff Goldblum’s failed entrepreneur, arguably the most self-absorbed and self-deprecating of the lot, to fend for himself; the odd man out in our game of musical bedrooms; unless, of course, we count Karen’s castoff husband, Richard.
Richard’s great scene comes early in the film; the night before Karen sends him home alone so she can pursue Sam. Although her motivation is never explained to Richard, he is nobody’s fool. Moreover, it doesn’t take an outsider to see their marriage is over even if neither is willing to concede it. Confessing his insomnia to Sam and Nick, Richard quietly explains a fundamental betrayal in life: “There’s always some asshole at work you have to kowtow to, and you find yourself doing things you thought you'd never do. But you try and minimize that stuff; be the best person you can be. But you set your priorities. And that's the way life is. I wonder if your friend, Alex, knew that. One thing’s for sure, he couldn't live with it. I know I shouldn't talk; you guys knew him. But the thing is... no one ever said it would be fun. At least... no one ever said it to me.”
With The Big Chill, Kasdan gives us the blackest of comedies. It isn’t that his protagonists are shying away from being more truthful to each other and themselves about the meaning of life. It’s that they are incapable of feeling as deeply about anything as they once did while still young, impressionable and caught in the throes of their own self-absorbed rosy futures. Now, at a crossroads, the path ahead looking neither as auspicious nor as infinitely rife with possibilities, each character must face the uncertainties of life anew – and alone. Some have made it through to the next round relatively unscathed. Others are arguably being given another opportunity to approach the same set of circumstances from an entirely different set of values and perspective. Will it all work out in the end? Hmmmm. Lawrence Kasdan never returns to his cast for answers. It would be fascinating for him to do a sequel; everyone having naturally matured and decidedly reached their emeritus years by now.
The Big Chill arrives via a new 4k master from Sony, exclusively produced and released to Criterion Home Entertainment. It’s mostly good stuff here; Grover Crisp’s meticulous attention to preserving the old Columbia archives giving us a very pleasing 1080p transfer. I’ve read a few reviews overly critical about residual softness and ‘exaggerated’ grain levels. Sorry to disagree, but The Big Chill on Blu-ray looks about as solid, refined and unencumbered by digital manipulations as I’ve ever seen it on home video. This is one exceptionally fine looking disc. Framed in the proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, what we have here is an accurate rendering of imperfect vintage 80’s film stocks with all the proper color timing/correction applied to rectify age-related degeneration and fading.
The Big Chill was never a movie exhibiting a richly saturated color palette. No, it’s more muted pastels and gloomy greens, greys and browns – the earthy textures of a South Carolina winter-scape. There is a thickness to the image, thoroughly in keeping with John Bailey’s cinematography. Fine detail isn’t razor sharp, nor was it ever meant to be. But shadow delineation is superb and close-ups reveal some truly exquisite detail in hair, flesh and clothing. About flesh tones – mostly accurate, though, on occasion, looking just a shade too pinkish for my tastes. Again, adjust your monitor and think positive thoughts. It’s not the transfer that’s flawed.
Sony has given us the option to experience the film’s soundtrack in either its original LPCM 1.0 mono or in a sparkling new DTS 5.1. The mono has been remastered from original magnetic tracks; the 5.1 is a deftly handling blend of stereo masters for the songs seamlessly combined with surviving 3-track dialogue and effects stems. Toggling between the two, I have to say I much preferred the new 5.1 (unusual for me, because I’m generally a purist at heart…also, because I’ve heard enough bad ‘remastered 5.1 audios – rechanneled and/or repurposed and/or reimagined, but that, in no way, preserve or represent the movie’s original intent). A stereo track should never take you ‘out’ of a movie viewing experience as in “Wow! Listen to that song or Whoa! Those bullets sounded like they came right past my head!” The Big Chill in stereo is remarkably faithful to Kasdan’s vision; the dialogue and SFX carefully integrated with that memorable back catalog of Motown and classic rock songs, given their new lease on life in 5.1.
Criterion affords us a new interview with Lawrence Kasdan who is remarkable in his recall of events on both the making of this movie and the overall arc in his career. The two best features herein are an hour-long documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau from 1998 and the cast reunion held at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. There’s overlap of info in these pieces but a lot of fresh and meaty material to appreciate besides. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)