The Big Chill (1983)

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

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In The Big Chill, a funeral brings together a group of old college friends, now in their thirties.  They’re at the point in their lives where they’re no longer young adults, well on their way to becoming who they will be when they die but with enough time to turn things around if needed.

The title refers to the cooling off period as a young adult just becomes an adult, less idealistic but perhaps more self-involved.  These characters haven’t seen each other in years, and they’re a mixed bunch, with careers ranging from tv star to gossip columnist to drug-addicted corporate something.  Underneath their hardening exterior, though, they’re all the same, lamenting where their life has headed and using their friend’s suicide to start questioning life and their past choices.

In one of the best scenes, the group analyzes Alex’s decision to kill himself.  At first one of them explains that maybe he didn’t ask why he should do it, but why not?  Then the others attack this point of view, and they decide that they can’t simplify the reasons Alex may have killed himself.  The truth is that none of them know and will never know.

Early on, as the friends gather for the funeral and a subsequent weekend in the country, all crammed into one house, the film feels like a dark comedy.  There isn’t much weight given to the funeral since we don’t know the person who has died, but instead we spend time learning about the quirks of each character.  These surface-level characteristics highlight the differences of each person.  William Hurt knocks back a few pills, the others watch their fellow attendees more than the service itself, and there is a series of shots of each character’s car starting up as if to highlight the economic disparity between them.  This is a story about how people have changed and how much they still have in common.

There is another character too, Alex’s girlfriend.  Chloe.  She doesn’t seem to mourn Alex the way you’d expect, and it’s not completely out of the picture that Chloe could have had something to do with his death.  Chloe is child-like, both in terms of her age relative to Alex and the rest of them and because she never shows any signs of sadness.  The other friends look at her with some bewilderment, but ultimately she is just another person trying to figure it out.

The Big Chill presents all these characterizations that might be used for broad comedy but are eventually used to show that no one is easily measurable or understood.  Their differences don’t clash in the way you might expect (such as in a movie like Death at a Funeral), and as the movie goes on, it reveals a tender heart you didn’t know it had.

Or maybe you did.

Throughout the movie there are sudden bursts of energy in the forms of hit songs all released in the mid to late sixties, when the group of friends would have been in college.  As they lament their adulthood and poor life choices, these songs kick in as they try to relive their youth.  The energy is still within them.

One of these early songs is the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, which plays during the funeral procession, moving slowly through the cemetery.  I found it to be a surprisingly tragic sequence despite the almost too obvious music selection, and it worked on me even when I knew next to nothing about this cast of characters.

In any movie with an ensemble cast, it presents a bit of a challenge to get to know and empathize with each character considering there might not be enough screen time for each of them.  I think that may be why they are heightened at first, more broad and brash than the typical character introduction.  They have to stand out from each other, which is a bit of a tough task considering I can’t tell the difference between Tom Berenger and Kevin Kline.  I only know William Hurt because I love Broadcast News and Jeff Goldblum because he’s Jeff Goldblum.

During their weekend together, the group of old friends play games, drink, hook up, talk about financial decisions, consider motherhood and mourn their friend Alex, who always remains just beneath the surface.  One of them admits that he feels alone in the world but not here with these people.  The others confirm they feel similar.

Alex, it seems, may have been the best of them, but that might also just be our ability to overly-memorialize the dead, overlooking their shortcomings and celebrating even their smallest accomplishments.  Did Alex know something they didn’t about life?  Was his willingness to take his own a black mark on their future?

When they discuss this, the movie starts to stand up a little, distancing itself from other ensemble-driven country house for the weekend movies like The Wedding Crashers.  The Big Chill isn’t the wild comedy it seems to set itself up as, it’s a discussion about the way life loses its luster and an expression of the beauty and difficulty of being alive.  These conversations are fueled by alcohol and the way you open up around friends and late at night.

They’ll wake up in the morning, sober and less likely to engage in such topics of discussion, but the events of The Big Chill, like college, take place in a bubble outside the real world.  It’s a time out, in other words.  The characters can re-evaluate where they’ve gone and where they’re headed, and maybe they’ll be just a little better prepared when they head back out.

This is also a type of coming of age story.  Usually such a movie follows a kid growing up, learning cruel but meaningful life lessons.  The point always seems to be that a child loses some innocence, understands the way the world really is but then is better prepared to tackle those new challenges.  In The Big Chill, these are adults learning the same lessons, suggesting that just because you leave college and become a functioning adult, you’re still not prepared for all that life has to offer.

Stories like this will always be around.  They are somewhat universal, and there’s something pleasing about watching people suffer through problems similar to our own and find meaning and strength in coming through the other side.  Maybe it’s too melodramatic or maybe that melodrama is just the right tone.  After all, we’re prone to over-exaggerating our own troubles.

 

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