No. 13: The Big Chill

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

That Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill is one of the most popular, memorable, and perhaps influential movies of 1983 is without question. Its $56.3 million box office take has been augmented in the years since by at least that much again in home video sales and add to that the six-time platinum selling Motown-heavy soundtrack that stands as arguably one of the most popular soundtrack albums in history. With the exception of the No. 1 movie on our countdown, there’s an argument to be made that as it pertains to the world of 2011, The Big Chill is perhaps the most culturally relevant film from 1983.

But that’s not the discussion I want to have today. That the film was and still is hugely popular is not debatable. What is debatable is whether or not The Big Chill is a film that resonates with, or indeed makes any sense at all to, any generation of viewers other than its target audience, by which I mean Baby Boomers. This is a movie made by, about and for people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and were at this point firmly adults when the film hit theaters in 1983. They were hippies in their hearts and yuppies in their bank accounts, a contradiction that the characters in The Big Chill spend a lot of time agonizing over inside of their enormous, well-appointed house.

There’s no sense in me trying to hide my personal bias here: as someone born in 1983, I am very much not a Baby Boomer and while my parents technically fall into the Baby Boomer generation by definition, they were born at the tail end of it and culturally were very much not a part of that generation. This is a generation with a very clear identity and it’s an identity that I’m not afraid to admit I just don’t get. The issues I have with these characters are basically the same issues I have with most Baby Boomer characters from movies of this era: they come off as extremely self-centered, narcissistic and irrational people who care more about appearing to be principled than actually living that way. That’s not a personal judgment I’m making about any human beings in the real world but it’s an observation I’ve made about characters that are meant to appeal to that generation.

For those who aren’t familiar, The Big Chill is a movie about a group of college friends who reunite for the weekend when one of their old pals commits suicide. I’m not going to run through every single character in The Big Chill because not only do I not care about all of them but giving each of them just a small paragraph would make this by far the longest review of the Back to the Movies series. Instead I’ll focus on the best and the worst of the bunch.

As for the best, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum stick out to me as the most appealing characters in this movie. They are the least consumed with themselves and the at the same time the actors playing them seem the least concerned with looking constantly tormented, focusing instead on bouncing off the other actors in the room. Goldblum, who was not yet a household name (his single line in Annie Hall was probably his most memorable work to date at this point) puts that trademark nebbishy self deprecation on full display here as a journalism student-turned-tabloid writer. His relentless and ineffective pursuit of Chloe, the dead man’s girlfriend (played by Meg Tilly, who is much less interesting here than she was in Psycho II) provides some nice self-aware humor in an otherwise self-obsessed screenplay. Kline on the other hand has a largely thankless role as Harold, the humble hippie who has somewhat surprisingly found himself in the position of successful businessman. Like Goldblum, Kline focuses his performance much less on the “who am I and how did I get here” anguish and let’s the dialogue handle that part. Kline has always been a remarkably likable actor and he’s definitely got that understated leading man quality here, though his South Carolina accent is far from perfect.

As for the bad, William Hurt‘s Nick certainly jumps out as the most stereotypically self-obsessed a-hole of the bunch, essentially begging his friends for reassurance and attention by acting out like a child for the length of the film. The fault is not Hurt’s, it’s the character himself and the way he’s written. And while I wouldn’t characterize Glenn Close‘s performance as bad, I’m absolutely baffled as to why she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this role as an almost completely forgettable, uninteresting and largely conflict-free woman.

Perhaps what’s most perplexing to me about Glenn Close’s character, and about the film as a whole really, is her role in the absurd subplot involving Mary Kay Place‘s character trying to convince one of the men to impregnate her so she can have a baby and be more fulfilled by her life. This entire episode of the film, and particularly the way in which it’s resolved, is so utterly ridiculous that if anyone from the Baby Boomer generation finds it remotely believable or even emotionally satisfying, it’s a stronger confirmation than ever of my hypothesis that The Big Chill is a movie that is far too audience-specific to ever become a timeless film.

Actually, I take that back. There’s one scene that makes this movie even less timeless. The infamous “kitchen dance sequence” in which the entire cast gets their dorky, white, middle-aged groove on is without a doubt the most cringe-worthy moment of cinema I’ve witnessed during this Back to the Movies project to date. Yes, some might say this is just pure fun, a bunch of characters cutting loose and showing us how comfortable they are with one another, how despite the fact that they are all together because of a suicide they still can’t help but have a good time around each other. You could say all of those things and they might all be right but it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t watch the clip below without putting my hands over my face in sheer embarrassment.

I’ll credit this scene for at least being one of the only moments in the movie in which the soundtrack is used appropriately. Kasdan’s garish use of music throughout the movie is at times poorly chosen, poorly mixed and poorly timed. The music becomes the focus of many scenes rather than a background element, yet another element that makes this film feel so indulgent of that nostalgia factor that only really resonates with people born to a specific generation.

I fear that what might be happening here is the classic problem of a film that originated a number of cinematic tropes suffering from the success of the very tropes it helped create. Maybe some of these eye-rolling cliches didn’t feel so unoriginal in 1983. I’m willing to grant The Big Chill that perhaps part of why it feels so terribly unenlightening and unoriginal is because its enormous success inspired so many copycats. That still doesn’t help with the fact that at the end of the day, it’s a terribly shallow movie that despite an awful lot of huffing and puffing, doesn’t really say anything. In the end, its characters go back to their lives, maybe having learned something but probably not. This is the kind of movie that meant a lot at the time but simply doesn’t stand the test of time and will probably grow even less relevant as time marches on. A glance at the list of Best Picture nominees from most years will probably reveal at least one film that fits a similar profile and while this movie holds a time capsule-like appeal that gives us a window into a very specific time and place and attitude, it’s not a film that will speak to the human condition of viewers from any time other than 1983.

Next Up: Richard Pryor joins Christopher Reeve for Superman III.