This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of The Big Chill, and I watched it a few days ago.
The film starts the sound of Harold Cooper bathing his young son. In the background wife Sarah Cooper answered the phone and we realise some terrible news has been received.
Other people are all seen in distress.
Their images are interleaved with images of a male body being dressed in a suit. At the climax of the process we see a wrist with 3 cuts on it, and we realise this is in fact the corpse of Alex, who committed suicide. He was living in a summer house belonging to the Coopers, and staying with his younger girlfriend Chloe. She is the only member of the group that assembles at the funeral that did not know Alex at the University of Michigan 15 years earlier, at the end of the 60s. The date of this story is contemporary, since it is mentioned later that 1978 was about 5 years ago.
At the funeral we hear that Alex was a brilliant physics student who gave up a promising career for a wandering life of dead-end jobs. But he stayed in touch with the more successful Coopers. Sarah (played by Glenn Close) is a doctor, whilst Harold (Kevin Kline) has some sort of wholesale business, but is about to sell out to a big chain, he reveals later. Michael (Jeff Goldblum) was a teacher in the inner city, but he quit to become a hack journalist. Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a lawyer. Sam (Tom Berenger) is the star of a corny TV show about a private eye, that looks vaguely like early 80s fare such as Magnum PI or Matt Houston. Nick (William Hurt) served in Vietnam, and was badly messed up. Karen (JoBeth Williams) was an aspiring writer but she put that career on hold to be a full-time mum, married to very stable and respectable Richard – not a Michigan graduate, and he leaves early to go look after the kids. In fact there are no kids visible after a few appearances at the wake.
As they stay over the weekend they get to talking about who they used to be and what they’ve become. Meg is quite sour as she did went very idealistically in to the inner city to work as a public defender and found that her clients were “repulsivos” who didn’t pretend to be anything more than amoral failures. “Who did you expect them to be?” she is asked, and the answer is cut in: “Huey and Bobby” – meaning of course Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. These young white students admired the Panthers and went on marches in solidarity with them. So Meg soon bailed out and went to a corporate law practice elsewhere. Fun fact: the origin story of US political commentator David Brooks has it that he also lost his liberal illusions seeing urban hell close-up, around the time this film was made. It’s also implied that Sam was a bit of a firebrand before settling into playing a smug playboy.
The middle of the film becomes quite like a sketch comedy show, rattling through wisecracking vignettes as the cast make some risque references from the comfort of early middle age. Drugs, gays and an abortion reference pass over as just familiar details of life, not dangerous and exotic topics. Nick is now a dealer after losing faith in his role as a radio show psychologist, and so the gang get to smoke a bit of dope and maybe try some pills and powders to keep the mood as high or low as they want. Nick also digs out a home video camera that the Coopers seem to have bought and forgotten about, and starts the business of recording mock interviews, to be played back to the team. That’s quite like Sex, Lies And Videotape, 6 years early. The scenes where we are watching and snarking at the TV, including Sam finding his own show ridiculous, are also a premonition of 90s slacker comedy.
Much of this was also echoed in the highly fashionable, but now seemingly forgotten series Thirtysomething. The Boomer generation really did do everything before everyone else, it was not possible for Generation X or anyone afterwards to be original.
I first heard of this film as an unfavourable comparison for the 1985 Brat Pack film St. Elmo’s Fire. I suppose that was Generation X, since the characters were at least 10 years younger. The story of that film concerns a group of fantastically over-privileged youngsters who’ve only been out of college for 5 minutes and are already feeling upset about it. Rob Lowe’s character (named “Billy Hicks”) is a particularly tiresome jock, who doesn’t convince as a person whoever deserved to get in to a top university on merit. The wannabe writer played by Andrew McCarthy also shows no signs of talent, and will probably scrape along as a hack for 20 years before seeing his livelihood destroyed by bloggers. The aspiring politico is an empty careerist suit who has already switched parties by the age of 22. What might stir up some sort of tension would be a Jay Gatsby character entering this world from outside, but the only times we see outsiders are as semi-comical stereotypes, as ungrateful welfare claimants or the prostitute working outside the St Elmo’s Bar. The latter is only non-white character to get any dialogue, though there are none in The Big Chill.
Another less-celebrated film that clearly borrowed from here is Peter’s Friends, the moment when Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh and chums started to push their luck. That steals outright the female character desperate to get pregnant in her 30s, with or without a husband. Was 1983 the first time “biological clock” appeared in a screenplay?
The Big Chill is so much better than any quick knock-off. What stands out most of all is William Hurt’s superb performance as the burned-out, twitchy casualty Nick. Comical but also the conscience of the group.
Another thing that stands out is the character of Chloe, clearly somewhat neurodivergent, as we now say, and that would be developed differently if this were made today.
The Criterion Collection edition includes an essay by Lena Dunham, if you need that. I haven’t read it, I might give it a go in 40 years time. The soundtrack album would be better value as it was on Motown and had lots of their best work, along with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Bad Moon Rising”.
Altogether this meets the test for any “influential” work – compared to what we have now, it seems good but not too different; compared to what we had then it was very different, and it was part of the shift in the background standards.
I think these characters definitely count as “boomers” but I’m not confident the term has a consistent use generally on social media nowadays. I think I am part of the tail-end of Generation X. I remember Generation Y was a thing for a while in the mid 90s Sunday newspapers, but seems to have gone extinct since then. I don’t really know the boundaries of Milennials and Zoomers and whatever else roams the Earth. Perhaps the later ones will not even get the privilege of feeling their own Chill.
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I mostly remember this movie of being a high budget rip-off of John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven, which was considerably better.
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