Film maker’s telling truly personal stories can go one of two ways. When Scorsese gave us Mean Streets, we got a ground breaking, genre redefining classic that gave new meaning to the word ‘gritty’. Unfortunately , when Lawrence Kasdan did it, we got a naval gazing, self felating in-joke nostalgia fest. Even worse, it became a bit of an era defining classic. We got The Big Chill.
After the suicide of Alex, a group of old college friends who have all mostly lost touch, end up spending a weekend together, reconnecting, unearthing feuds that should have been left buried, and trying to come to terms with the death of their friend. But this isn’t just any group of old college friends. This is an all star cast of the early 80s’ biggest names.
Kevin Cline and Glenn Close are Harold and Sarah, the college couple who made it. Happily married with a couple of kids, a successful business and owners of the home where everyone has descended for a weekend long wake. Tom Berenger is Sam, a successful, but dissatisfied TV actor, and star of a show seemingly based on Magnum PI. Jeff Goldblum is Michael, an opportunistic tabloid reporter who seems more tolerated than liked by any of these people.
William Hurt is Nick, the lost soul who seems like it could have easily been his suicidal funeral they would be attending if Alex hadn’t beaten him to it. Mary Kay Place is Meg, the lawyer who has professional success but no personal life to speak of. Jobeth Williams is Karen, the bored housewife who wishes she never settled for the safe option. Meg Tilly is Chloe, Alex’s young girlfriend and the only houseguest who isn’t an old college friend.
The Big Chill is a story that’s obviously very close to Lawrence Kasdan’s heart, being based on his own experiences and friends from college. The only problem is, it’s a little too close and inside. I never felt like I was hanging out with a group of friends and in on their jokes. Instead, I felt like I was stuck with a group of people I’d never met before and was the odd man out. In the early stages, it’s not so bad. Karen’s husband, Richard (Don Galloway) is the movie’s odd man out and kind of acts as an audience surrogate, trying to find his feet amongst the group who know everything about each other. But he leaves early on, and the viewer is left to fend for themself.
The other thing that really shit me with The Big Chill is the soundtrack. It was a huge, monumental success. Full of standards from the characters’ college years, it’s supposed to represent how cool they were back then. But it’s the most obvious, chart topping hits. When I was at uni in the late 90s, anyone who listened to chart topping hits was someone to be avoided. How could you be friends with a person who liked Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls, or One Week by Bare Naked Ladies?
The only thing more obvious than the song choices is the way Kasdan decides to use them to hammer home every point he’s trying to make or mood he’s trying to evoke. I Heard it Through the Grapevine as each character gets ready for the funeral… You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman when several of the female characters are being sexed but good (because The Big Chill is the kind of movie where the dudes are doing the broads a favour by giving them a seeing to)… It’s like using Born to Be Wild in any motorcycle scene after Easy Rider… You just don’t do it!
There’s a great story to be told about aging hippies from the 60s, trying to come to terms with leaving the counter culture behind and becoming part of the system. That story was called Family Ties and it was one of the best sitcoms of the 80s. Maybe if you were a college idealist in the late 60s, and a 30 year old sell out in the early 80s, I can understand how this movie might have seemed relevant when it came out. But to me, The Big Chill is the worst kind of nostalgia, dressed up to look like the worst kind of melodrama.
On the upside, I mentioned the movie to a 23 year old I work with, and she’d never heard of it. So hopefully that means its reputation and notoriety are dying along with the generation it depicted.