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A seminal Thirty-Something movie in which a group of old college friends who are now all grown up and hardened by the big wide world come together for the funeral of Alex, a barely glimpsed corpse, who was at one time the brightest and the best of them, and yet who never managed to achieve half as much as any of the others. The friends use the occasion to reacquaint themselves with each other and to speculate as to what happened to their idealism which had been abundant when they were younger. Written by
Mark Thompson <email@example.com>
When I was a student at Cambridge in the early eighties, shortly before "The Big Chill" came out, a friend of mine had a poster on his wall entitled "Woodstock Tenth Anniversary Reunion". (The actual anniversary had taken place in August 1979, not long before we went up). The joke was that those attending the reunion were all middle-class professional types, smartly dressed in lounge suits with well-trimmed short hair. This poster exemplified the way in which my generation saw the baby boomers, twentysomething hippies turned thirtysomething yuppies. Those who still retained their hippie idealism were mercilessly derided as being at least ten years behind the times. (And derided not only by Cambridge students but also by the likes of B. A. Robertson, in his satirical song "Kool in the Kaftan").
"The Big Chill" takes a rather more charitable look at the problems facing those idealists from the 1960s who tried to retain their idealism during the conservative Reagan years of the early 1980s. It features a group of old college friends from the University of Michigan who are reunited after fifteen years. The event which reunites them is the death of Alex, one of the group, who committed suicide while staying at the home of his friends Harold and Sarah. An impromptu reunion occurs as the old friends gather for Alex's funeral.
The precise reasons why Alex killed himself are not spelled out- he did not leave a suicide note- but as the movie progresses we realise that he had become disillusioned with the course his life had taken. (He was a brilliant scientist, but had dropped out of the academic life to become a social worker). His friends also come to realise this, and the realisation prompts them to consider the paths their own lives have taken. Most of the group were involved in the counterculture of the 1960s and the peace movement or other forms of radical politics, but most are now living much more conservative, middle-class lifestyles. Harold is a business executive and his wife Sarah a doctor; they live in an elegant antebellum home in the South. Sam, a one-time radical, has now become a Hollywood actor closely based upon Tom Selleck, down to the moustache. (While watching the film I assumed that Selleck himself was playing the part; it was only when I saw the cast-list that I realised it was actually Tom Berenger). Karen is also now living an affluent lifestyle but is feeling dissatisfied with her husband Richard (who was not one of the college group). Michael, once a radical journalist, now works for the apolitical, celebrity-obsessed "People Magazine". Nick, a Vietnam War veteran, has now become a drug dealer. Apart from their friend's suicide, the question which haunts the group is what became of their youthful idealism?
Contrary to what one might have expected, the film does not take a straightforward "radicalism good, conservatism bad" line. A key scene comes when Nick nearly gets himself arrested by badmouthing the local policeman. Harold, a personal friend of the officer, manages to smooth things out, but then berates Nick for his rudeness and stupidity. To Nick, who still subscribes to the sixties idea that all cops are "pigs" , this may seem like a sellout to the enemy, but I suspect that most of the audience will side with Harold who realises that some of his contemporaries have difficulty in distinguishing between idealism and childishness.
"The Big Chill" has something in common with another movie from the early eighties, Barry Levinson's "Diner" from 1981, which also deals with a reunion of a group of former classmates, although that film is a period piece set in 1959 and the characters are rather younger, being in their twenties rather than their thirties. What the two films have in common is that both are excellent examples of ensemble acting.
This was the second film of its director Lawrence Kasdan (his first was the very different neo-noir thriller "Body Heat") and it starred a number of actors, such as William Hurt and Kevin Kline, who were to become regulars in Kasdan's movies. , (Kevin Costner, originally cast as Alex, was edited out of the final version, but also went on to become a Kasdan regular). There are too may good performances to list them all, but special mentions must go to Kline as Harold, Glenn Close as Sarah and Meg Tilly as Alex's strange, unworldly younger girlfriend Chloe.
One question much discussed on this board is whether the film is "dated". Leaving aside trivial questions of fashion (even in the eighties Tom Berenger's hairstyle must have looked very seventies), I think that it is "dated", but only in the narrow, limited sense that it deals with cultural phenomena such as the sixties counterculture which were very much of their own era. In a wider sense it is not dated because it deals with timeless issues such as love, friendship and the challenge of staying true to one's youthful ideals in later life. (Another eighties film on this theme, although in my view a less successful one, is Fred Schepisi's "Plenty").
I felt that the film was occasionally slow-moving, with too great an emphasis on talk over action. I also wondered whether it might not have been improved by keeping Costner's scenes to allow us to see what sort of a person Alex was and why his death had such a traumatic impact on his friends. Overall, however, I felt that it was a very watchable film, and often a moving one- one that could be watched for pleasure not only by those who are too young to remember the sixties but even those who are too young to remember the eighties. 7/10
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