Director Lawrence Kasdan manages to recapture the awkward limbo of thirty-something’s seemingly unprepared for the age of maturity and yet not quite ready to surrender the ghost of youth in The Big Chill (1983). The screenplay by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek is a seminal patchwork of ensemble cameos with an all-star cast front-lined by Kevin Kline and Glenn Close as happily married couple, Harold and Sarah.
After the sudden passing of one of their own, Alex (Kevin Costner in an unaccredited and unseen – except for his hands and torso - role) Harold and Sarah open their pastoral turn of the century southern plantation home to a select group of friends from their college days for a poignant weekend of contemplation.
The rest of the cast is a who’s who of up and coming talent, including William Hurt (as self destructive has-been doctor, Nick); Jeff Goldblum (self-important, Michael); JoBeth Williams (suppressed housewife, Karen); Tom Berenger (TV celebrity, Sam), Mary Kay Place (unfulfilled in her longing to have a child, as Meg) and Meg Tilly (doing her ‘par for the course’ spooky and aloof variation of being herself, as Chloe).
Particularly upsetting to this brood is the fact that the late Alex seemed to be the brightest and the best of them all in college; the guy with all the answers and the women who was going to go farther and be more successful than any of them. Alex was all things to all people then. But life has a strange and very unkind way of altering perceptions of both others and ourselves.
In the intervening years, Alex was unhappy and alone and feeling very much isolated from the people he once called his friends. That sense of detachment eventually led to his demise and, looking back on it now, the remaining band of the faithful each can see how they might have done more to be the sort of friend Alex needed to see him through life's rough spots. The script also cleverly draws a parallel between Alex and Nick – who is seemingly on the edge of his own burn out and total eclipse.
Viewed today, the most dated aspect in the film is its remnant spank of 60’s ‘free love’ liberation that frequently manifests itself as a thoroughly thoughtless attitude toward sexual experimentation – particularly in our post-80s AIDS aware landscape of very real and direct consequences from letting it all just ‘hang out.’ Otherwise, The Big Chill is a very poignant story about getting back to basics and re-bonding with the people you only thought you knew as young adults.
As example, after the funeral, Karen’s husband goes home, leaving her to reexamine the life she might have had with her one time college lover, Sam. The two quietly flirt and rekindle their romance. Meanwhile, Meg’s overwhelming desire to have a child without first acquiring a husband garners sympathy from Sarah who thereafter instructs her husband, Michael to impregnate Meg during a consented night of presumably passionless sex. Sarah’s unquestioning inference, that men are as interchangeable as the act of procreation itself, has never been a mantra I've been entirely able to stomach.
Nevertheless, The Big Chill holds together, primarily because each and every one of the performers embodying these roles is just perfect. There is a sense of history here, with each actor bringing something of themselves to their roles. We believe in them as individuals, buy into their relationships better still, and manage to find more than a kernel of truth in how everyone plays their hand in this gloriously flawed game of life.
Kasdan further cements his film in a definite time capsule with some timely/timeless pop chart-topping hits from the ‘60s – a bit of subliminal reflection that further illustrates the chasm between life as our ensemble knew it and the lives they are currently leading. In the final analysis, The Big Chill is very much a film about moving forward without regrets, even as it remains a story about people questioning their own history as it relates to their own mortality after the painful loss of one of their own.
Sony Home Entertainment’s DVD is just above average; a dated image with slightly faded and dull colors, unnatural and pasty flesh tones, often softly focused and with a hint of edge enhancement and pixelization to boot. Fine details are lost in darker scenes. Age related artifacts are present throughout. The audio is a 5.1 remastering of the original 2.0 stereo and exhibit a decidedly dated sonic quality that is nevertheless adequate for this presentation. Extras include a retrospective and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)