It seems perfectly appropriate for me to feel so indifferent about a movie that’s polarized audiences for nearly four decades. One one hand, The Big Chill is an well-dialogued generation piece that can be looked at through the lenses of baby boomers who met in college around the free love ’60s. But on the other hand, you can say that same well-written story with interesting characters is a self-aggrandized means to an unnecessarily risqué end.
Lawrence Kasdan’s dramedy about a group of seven thirty-somethings who were all best friends in college takes place years after they’ve gone their separate ways. Harold (Kevin Kline), owner of a shoe store chain, and his wife Dr. Sarah Cooper (Glenn Close) are living in their large gated home in a rural Richmond, Virginia when they get the news that their longtime friend, Alex, committed suicide.
At the funeral, Harold and Sarah are reunited with their tight knit group of friends from college. There’s Sam (Tom Berenger), a famous TV actor, Michael (Jeff Goldblum), a journalist for People Magazine, Meg (Mary Kay Place), a real estate attorney who’s trying to have a child, Karen (JoBeth Williams), an unhappy housewife, and Nick (William Hurt), a depressed Vietnam War vet who abuses drugs to escape the reality of his aimless career path. After Alex’s burial, they all reconvene at Harold and Sarah’s home, and end up staying there for the weekend to reconnect with each other after all these years of losing touch, wondering why, in fact, that seems to have happened.
Along with trying to make sense of their own lives, the characters utilize this time to relive past memories, as well as to examine life as a whole and how it relates to Alex’s suicide.
Much like overly-articulate Dawson’s Creek characters, it seems like everyone in The Big Chill says everything perfectly at all times. I guess it makes sense that they’re all friends, but the dialogue feels a little too scripted at times. The lines are very thick to where it’s often easy to miss the overall points.
That’s not to take away from how good the dialogue actually is. The ideas and sentiments the characters are feeling are very real–often a realization of things we may have thought or felt, ourselves, but didn’t know how to put into words. Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and co-writer Barbara Benedek’s script reveals exposition in unique ways. We don’t need flashbacks to know everyone’s stories. It only gets tricky to keep track of all the characters when they’re referred to by name.
The Big Chill is the perfect example of how introspective we can be when we just sit around and think and talk to people with different perspectives than our own. People who knew us so well at one point, but whose lives in recent years have experienced so many new things apart from us. Not everything stated by these characters is correct. Sometimes two differing opinions are right. Sometimes both are wrong.
The most intriguing character out of them all is Nick. He’s the most similar to how Alex was. They both lived unconventional lifestyles–hopping from job to job, couch surfing, self-destructive tendencies. Yet when Nick suffers from the same depression that plagued Alex, many of his friends treat him like he’s only self-pitying for attention. Moments earlier, they lament about how they could have saved Alex if he had someone to talk to or if he had just opened up to them. It’s a very real dichotomy that people with depression face. They tend to hold back on unloading their issues to the people in their lives to prevent the eye-rolling. The contempt from the other characters is evidence of that.
All of this excellent writing and superb acting is eventually undermined by soap opera-like trysts in the final act that are neither here nor there, making a case that all the deep insight may have, in fact, been disingenuous. One theme of The Big Chill is that good people do bad things and then try to rationalize them. That very much sums up what this film may be all about in the end.