The Big Chill (1983)

2 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not entirely sure why I love “The Big Chill” enough to give it a four-star rating, so I’m going out on a limb trying to explain why. It’s a film about a reunion of old friends and…that’s about it. We’re basically just in the company of these people as they reminisce their past and consider their present selves. The screenplay is entirely in dialogue for these conversations to take up the whole film. There’s hardly any payoff to be had. And it seems more like an exercise than an actual mainstream drama—an exercise in writing and directing a movie with eight of the brightest up-and-coming actors at the time.

But the exercise worked. I found myself invested in the goings-on of these people. I liked watching them and listening to them.

The friends, veterans of the activist 1960s, reunite briefly in 1983 to attend the funeral of their friend who has committed suicide. They’re all between laughter and tears. The men, especially, crack jokes at their deceased friend’s expense and one of them takes notice of this and asks, “Are we afraid to express our feelings?” Well apparently, they’re not afraid to express their feelings, since they acknowledge that they are survivors of the 1960s and their lives have indeed changed in their 30s.

The friends are suitably diverse—Sam (Tom Berenger) is a TV star and a nice guy; Karen (JoBeth Williams) is a housewife bored by her husband Richard’s (Don Galloway) devotion; Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a toady journalist who previously wanted to be a novelist; Meg (Mary Kay Place) was once a dedicated public defender who abandoned her lesser clients to succeed further as a lawyer. The ones who fare better than the rest are Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close)—they married, live a suburban lifestyle, and have good paying jobs (he’s a shoe-retailer; she’s a physician). The most complicated of the group is Nick (William Hurt), a drug addict who was a radio psychologist, and a Vietnam veteran. His life has no ambition.

Completing this group is a newcomer to the group—their deceased friend’s girlfriend Chloe (Meg Tilly). She’s pretty (and about a decade younger than the rest), but she’s not very big-picture. The death of her lover hardly phases her—there’s one scene in the beginning where she tells Karen that Alex’s death caused a real mess, but Chloe assuredly states “It’s OK—we cleaned it up.” There’s another funny bit in which she says she’s disappointed to ride from the funeral in an ordinary car instead of a limousine. She’s unconcerned about the passing of time that the others are concerned about, and when everyone is eating at Harold and Sarah’s dinner table and feeling bad for their loss, notice that she’s the only one that’s eating.

Oh, and she also exercises quite often. Call me immature, but…her flexibility does it for me.

All of these actors do great jobs and they all share a convincing camaraderie that comes through to their characters. In particular, the actors that stand out the most are Tom Berenger as this nice guy embarrassed by his starring role in a TV show, William Hurt as the aimless (and impotent) Vietnam vet, and Meg Tilly who has fun as this dizzy broad, who when you really think about it is actually the narrative’s center (she’s the observer and reactor to the others).

“The Big Chill” also has a very funny screenplay. To keep the drama from being monotonous, there are many great one-liners for everyone in the cast to deliver. One of my favorites is the funeral’s reception, in which Michael states, “They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.” (I’m sorry to say I used that line at my own grandfather’s funeral. Very sorry.) These jokes come across as pretty frank, too. It’s like the humor that these people give from the screenplay are reflecting their emotions between laughter and tears, like I mentioned before.

Actually, this is why I love “The Big Chill” the way I do. It’s not just a drama about the reunion of a group of friends who talk about their past and present; it’s a comedy as well. The laughs are there to serve as comic relief, keeping the film from what could have been monotonous. I cared about these people, the actors are perfect, the screenplay is great, and by the end of the movie, I feel like I was in the company of people I’ve gotten to know, and I’m not as bored as I, or you, might think.

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