Wednesday, 7 July 2010

“It's a cold world out there.”

I always look back in surprise that The Big Chill did so well at the 1983 Oscars. In addition to the Supporting Actress nomination for Glenn Close, it also picked nods for its screenplay and Best Picture. Of course I feel it deserved more, but for a film so self-effacing I’m still surprised it managed to gain even these laurels. From the general sense it seems the jury’s still out on the longevity of The Big Chill since in so many ways it’s a film that exists completely in its time – the eighties. But for someone who was neither alive then, nor an American, I like to think that The Big Chill exists as more than some misguided hammy ode to idealism for the baby boomers’ generation from Kasdan. It’s my bias, of course. But is it too naïve of me to see The Big Chill as it ostensibly sets itself up to be – a commemoration of that charming thing called friendship?
Obviously the lovely Meredith from M. Carter at the Movies doesn’t think I am too naïve, her words are quite perceptive, as usual.
"Too many people insist that The Big Chill is just a movie about some Baby Boomers – former college pals including Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, William Hurt and more – whining about their problems while reconnecting after the suicide of their roommate. These people have missed the point. The Big Chill is both timely and timeless in its central message: The dead zone years between college and middle age are rough for everyone, a period of self-discovery marked by highs and lows, the realization that no one, really, ever aces his own life. There’s something wonderfully comforting about that."
That perfectly encompasses a great deal of the film’s charm…the ability it has to comfort…
The setup is simple. A group of friends spend a weekend together when one of their original group members – Alex – commits suicide. It’s the simplest of plots. A wedding, a funeral, a reunion – all are ideal ways to get a group of persons together. Kevin Kline and Glenn Close play the generically “good” couple. It’s their house we spend the weekend at, but the film depends on all - Mary Kay Place, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, Meg Tilly, JoBeth Williams and the man of the eighties William Hurt. We will learn a number of things over the next two days. We’ll learn who had an affair with Alex, who’s having problems in their marriage – the usual things we detect when we haven’t seen friends in a while. In this way, the normalcy of The Big Chill is obvious, but it’s a normalcy that is never rudimentary. Chemistry is something that cannot be forced, and even some excellent actors are unable to forge an authentic onscreen relationship. With The Big Chill the lot of actors working together is never affected, but always genuine. It’s, by far, the most appealing thing about the film. We’re willing to buy the slight conceits of the plot because we’re so willing to believe that these people did have a life, a friendship, together not so long ago. And what happens when friends come together? Music.  
Yojimbo contributes a mere line, but it says much: “Best soundtrack evah.” Not sure if I’d call it the best “evah” but it’s somewhere near the top and its as nostalgic, cool, smooth and sweet as necessary….and I do love music.
Walter Hollman of the very diverse Silver Screening Room is another fan of the ensemble dramedy (hate that word, but it applies):
"Call me a sucker for ensemble films (I am), or an unabashed lover of all things Close or Hurt (guilty), but I love this movie. Glenn Close, of course, is great in her nominated role, but I always come back to Mary Kay Place and William Hurt, two vulnerable performances that become the most relatable. What I really love, really, is that, despite centering around a suicide, the film is rarely dreary and often funny. Great soundtrack, and the fact that they actually manage to make that absurd pregnancy subplot not awkward is a credit to the actors and Kasdan."
Walter hits on another sentient. Mary Kay Place tells us that the world is cold, it is, but like friendship The Big Chill gives us that cathartic embrace that makes us forget - temporarily, perhaps - but that's enough. Zeitgeist? Probably...but not any less for it...   
Nonetheless, I’d warrant that the chemistry of the cast is just a notch above Kasdan’s script. Even though it’s easy to craft a film around a group of people meeting, it’s often quite uninspiring. I would not doubt that The Big Chill sits in my top ten as one of those “you had to be there” experiences – but, then, isn’t that the very principle of making a list of favourite films? The words are potent not because they exist as brilliant reflections on life and its subsistence I always smile (although the joke is more of an in-joke) at the easiness with which Kasdan decides to craft their meeting.
I am vastly aware that my love of The Big Chill is greatly driven by emotion, but yet it remains laudable. It’s not so much that it has low standards, but Kasdan is conscious that sometimes there is beauty in the modest. Never does it deign to tell us how life should be, or what it should represent. It’s always well aware of its aims – a look into the lives of people you’re more than likely to meet sometime in your life. It’s a diffidence that charms me throughout even as there are moments that are obviously “cinematic”. Sometimes, the pithiness does protrude as an obvious tenet of the trade, but The Big Chill succeeds so much in its quest for calmness it’s easy for us to leave it forgetting that these friends haven’t solved their issues, and if so – only tenuously. But it’s Kasdan’s flair for normalcy – like life nothing is settled and no even is seismic, but life must go on. As the credits prepare to roll and the friends set up impromptu camp in the kitchen and Jeff Goldblum utters the line we took a secret vote. We're not leaving. We're never leaving. I always smile. It’s the same way I feel – I’m never prepared for something so charmingly human, but so beautifully soothing to finish. And, ultimately few things are more attractive in a film because sometimes we forget that the things that are most interesting in the world are people just like us.
The countdown continues with The Big Chill appearing at #8. Coming up next is a recent one from the last decade…does The Big Chill make you feel warm and fuzzy too...?


Jose said...

I've only seen it once and it didn't really make that much of an impression with me.
Close is great and so is Hurt but they they ruled the 80's pretty much.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

close and hurt really did rule the eighties, I don't know why that decade gets so much flack. it's a nice group movie, and i really do love it.