The Big Chill (1983)

*. I had thought this film mostly forgotten by now. Where it was still remembered, I didn’t think many people took it seriously. But then, even when it came out I remember thinking of it as a bit of a joke. Was I wrong?
*. Well, it did get a Criterion release, if that means anything. And they include an essay by Lena Dunham where she seems to find some deeper meaning in it. Apparently “These are your parents.” Or at least her parents. Her essay seems mostly to be about herself, so perhaps there’s some inherited self-absorption going on. But in any event she takes the movie straight.
*. I think that’s more and more of a mistake. In hindsight The Big Chill strikes me as being high camp, and as the years go by it’s getting campier all the time.
*. What I mean is that this is not a bad movie in the sense of being dull or incompetent. In many regards it’s quite well done and entertaining: a polished production with an excellent cast. But it is also a joke.
*. This is going a bit further than contemporary reviewers did. They found it slick but empty. Pauline Kael (who, on balance, liked it): “The picture offers the pleasures of the synthetic. It’s overcontrolled, it’s shallow, it’s a series of contrivances. And whenever Kasdan tries for depth the result is phony.”
*. Or, Roger Ebert, saying something rather similar: “The Big Chill is a splendid technical exercise. It has all the right moves. It knows all the right words. Its characters have all the right clothes, expressions, fears, lusts and ambitions. But there’s no payoff and it doesn’t lead anywhere. I thought at first that was a weakness of the movie. There also is the possibility that it’s the movie’s message.”
*. Of course that is part of the message, with the final line being Michael’s declaration that the group is never going to leave the comfort of their well-appointed womb. So, literally, it is a movie that doesn’t lead anywhere. It has no politics at all and the psychologizing is canned (the impotent Vietnam vet, the repressed housewife, etc.) In short, I think Ebert and Kael are right that this is a glossy film without any depth. Though it does try for depth. And that’s where it gets funny.

*. You could compare it to other movies concerned with defining a generation. Slacker, maybe. Or you could compare it to John Sayles’s The Return of the Secaucus 7, which writer-director Lawrence Kasdan says he had not seen. But when I was watching it this most recent time the movie I couldn’t get out of my head was Valley of the Dolls.
*. Both films are camp soap operas. They earnestly look to deal with Very Serious Matters but they are kitschy and absurd. In both films we have no sense of watching adults dealing with real problems. Instead, this is what a precocious pre-teen imagines being an adult is like. The angst. The ennui. The pills. The sex.
*. Laughs? I mean, unintended ones. There are more of these than there were scripted gags. How can you watch the scene with Sam and Karen on the boardwalk and not be grinning ear-to-ear? Give it another few years and I think we’ll all be laughing right through it. Or when John Hurt’s Nick says, in the perfect pissy voice, that “it’s only outside here, in the world, that it gets tough!” That’s a closer.

*. And it’s not just funny. It’s creepy too. It’s like all of Karl Marx’s and D. H. Lawrence’s worst fantasies about the beastliness of the bourgeoisie have been realized in a single weekend of frantic bed-hopping, with wounded men being pursued by mature professional women in heat. The climax of all this is the seeding of poor childless Meg, which we know was successful because we see her watching the virile Kevin Kline going out for his morning jog while she reclines on her pillows with a well-serviced smile of satisfaction. Oh my.
*. Of course it’s the essence of camp that it take itself seriously and the fact that Kasdan and co-writer Barbara Benedek really felt this loss of ’60s innocence and the warm atmosphere of college, with the subsequent big chill of entering into a colder “real” world, is what pushes the film into the realm of a camp classic.
*. Apparently all the actresses thought the breeding arrangement was ridiculous, insane, and unimaginable, but Kasdan found it “benign” and couldn’t understand why people thought it exceptional. Another example of his innocence leading to unintended hilarity.

*. In our own time we’ve come to hate this generation, and not without some reason. They are seen as the sell-outs who just coasted through life, enjoying the sunny days of America’s postwar golden-age economy while whining about their own loss of ideals. The fact that the friends here have achieved such a fantastic level of success only makes their complaining more ridiculous. A bunch of Michigan classmates have become the owner of a chain of shoe stores, a big-shot lawyer, the star of a hit television series, a writer for a national magazine (back when that was a good job), a syndicated radio host, a doctor . . . and we’re supposed to feel these people’s pain as they try to adjust to the cold cruel world of adult reality? Or because their lives didn’t turn out the way they wanted? That they didn’t, as the song has it, get what they want?

*. It’s very theatrical. Very talky, in a way where the lines are all clipped and meant to be significant (Ebert: “The dialogue sounds like a series of bittersweet captions from New Yorker cartoons”). The characters are quickly identifiable as types, which is to say unrealistic caricatures. Jeff Goldblum’s Mike is the worst, being so obnoxious and awkward it’s hard to understand how the other, more successful yuppies stand him.
*. So it’s all very silly and superficial and campy, which makes it fun in a so-awful-it’s-kind-of-good sort of way. If it stands for anything today I see it as representing the final turning away from the spirit of the independent American filmmaking of the 1970s. I thought it interesting that Criterion included an interview with Kasdan where he talks about his preference for working within the studio system. He makes several good points about the quality of the talent on both sides of the camera that he had to work with. One is able to do more with greater resources.
*. That said, so much has been lost. There’s no comparing the depth of a film like Five Easy Pieces to the silliness here. Even in its sincerity there is something so almost painfully immature about this movie and it’s resolution not to grow up. An indictment of its generation, or a touching elegy? I’m sure the aim was for the latter, but you don’t always get what you want.

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4 thoughts on “The Big Chill (1983)

  1. chandlerswainreviews

    Wow, did you nail this movie for what it is. The only thing creepier than the movie was that when I saw it upon its release, the couple next to me was crying during the screening. That definitely called for some generational disinfectant.

    Reply
  2. Tom Moody

    Good job (I’ve fought hard never to see this movie since its release so you are confirming my prejudices). I never saw Secaucus 7 either. I did read Stephen King’s It when it came out, which had a similar successful-boomers-reuniting theme. At least with that one, you had an evil clown killing people!

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      That’s really interesting. I hadn’t made the connection to It, but I guess it came out just a few years later and did share that reunion theme. I remember reading it because there was a copy lying around the office of the park I was working at one summer. Haven’t seen the new film version yet but I’m hoping to get to it sometime soon.

      Reply

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