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Celebrating ‘The Big Chill’ on Its 30th Anniversary

Those of us who were born in the early ’80s (and even those a few years older than us) might know The Big Chill best because of its soundtrack. The film, released 30 years ago tomorrow, spawned two records (my parents, inexplicably, had two copies of both on vinyl), including songs by The Temptations, The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Three Dog Night, The Band, et al — songs were popular during the mid- to late ’60s, the time during which the characters in the film attended the University of Michigan together. The film is about nostalgia, and was one of the first to incite the Baby Boomers to look fondly, if a bit narcissistically, at their own Good Old Days.

One could argue that the film hasn’t held up well. Those of later generations, like my own, look down upon it. There’s the scene in High Fidelity when the record store dudes played by John Cusack, Jack Black, and Todd Louiso list their favorite songs about death; the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is dismissed immediately because of its inclusion in what is a classic scene from The Big Chill. It’s played on the organ at the end of the funeral for Alex, whose suicide has brought his college friends back together for the first time in years, and then the soundtrack transitions into the Stones recording itself, which plays while the funeral procession leaves the ceremony en route to the burial.

It makes sense that The Big Chill is now seen as hokey: it is, after all, a movie that our parents loved. I was born just a few weeks before the movie was released, and one would think that I would not have the affection for it that I’ve had since I was a teenager. After all, why should I care about the feelings and emotional turmoils of a group of people in their early 40s who have discovered, much to their dismay, that the ideals they had when they were young people slowly withered away once they realized that their progressive mentalities did not mesh with the real world? To be honest, I don’t care much about that predicament, and I care much less each time I watch the movie.

But what I do love about The Big Chill is the screenplay written by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek. Even for a modern character drama, the script relies very heavily on dialogue — it reads much more like a stage play than a film script. Backstories about the group of college friends are all revealed through conversation — onions peeled back throughout the film, slowly and steadily. We don’t see Alex, the friend who has killed himself (Kevin Costner, who was hired for the role, was cut from the film); rather than relying on flashbacks, director Kasdan tells us all we need to know about Alex through his friends. He was, at various points in his life, an academic, an activist, a social worker; he was listless and uncertain of his way in life, a direct contrast to his peers, who seem to have all found places for themselves. He also had an affair with Sarah (played by Glenn Close, who nabbed an Oscar nomination) after she was married to Harold (Kevin Kline), which the couple both reveal, separately, to Meg (Mary Kay Place) and Nick (William Hurt), respectively.

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But the relationships between the old friends don’t only come to life on screen through the writing; the members of the ensemble cast all pull their weight and deliver stellar performances. From the first scene at the funeral, we sense the immediate spark between Karen (played by JoBeth Williams), who has turned into a suffocated housewife to her stodgy and boring husband, and Sam (Tom Berenger), the television actor who stars in a Magnum, P.I.-style series. Jeff Goldblum absolutely nails the smarmy sensibilities of People magazine writer Michael, who unabashedly flirts with Alex’s girlfriend, Chloe (Meg Tilly), the only outsider who manages to stay the weekend. (In an early montage, Michael is seen unpacking a sleeve of condoms from his bag; again, this is a small detail that speaks volumes not just of the character but also Kasdan’s skill as a director.)

While the nostalgic elements can be, at times, a bit insufferable, it’s the solid characterizations of the friends that save the film and add to its merits. Everyone is torn up over Alex’s suicide, particularly because no one saw it coming. Well, they did and they didn’t: he had the potential, of course, to achieve greatness, but he didn’t, and no one can quite figure out why. As is standard for any grieving process, there’s a lot of introspection surrounding how each character is affected by his death. This comes out especially in Nick’s character, and he’s the one of the group whose life most resembles Alex’s. A Vietnam vet and former psychiatrist, Nick is now a drug dealer, seemingly on the same path of passivity that led to Alex’s demise. But all of the characters want to blame themselves for his death; through the years, their strong friendships have softened — they have lost touch, thought less about each other as the relationships and problems in front of them have become their priorities.

That’s what is so honest about the film, and anyone who has gathered with old friends for a forced reunion like a funeral (or, less depressingly, a wedding) can relate to that realization. We assume, in those tender collegiate years, that the friends we have will be our closest for the rest of our lives. It rarely happens that way. People move on, move out, fall out of touch; it’s the great truth about life. And as comfortable as the friends are by the end of the weekend — after the awkwardness, the catharses, the emotional revelations have all passed — there’s the very subtle sense that, despite what they say as they part ways, they probably won’t ever get together like this again unless there’s a similarly unfortunate reason to do.

I remember reading a piece about The Big Chill when it turned 15; in it, the writer wrote (and I’m paraphrasing), “If you’re 15, you won’t get The Big Chill.” As a precocious 15-year-old, I took offense. At 30, I understand what the writer meant, as well as the themes of the film, a bit more. Despite the self-reflective nature of the film, its sometimes-cheap sentimentality, and the fact that the soundtrack was, essentially, the Garden State soundtrack of 1983, I can’t help but love the film. At this point, for me, it brings out a double-layered sense of nostalgia.

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