In Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill a group of thirtysomethings are drawn together when Alex, one of their friends, commits suicide. Once idealistic college students of the late 1960s, the group has now become successful adults of the 1980s. Sam (Tom Berenger) is now an actor. Harold (Kevin Kline) owns a chain of shoe stores and his wife Sarah (Glenn Close) is a doctor. Karen (JoBeth Williams) is the wife of an ad executive, Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a lawyer, Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a writer for People magazine and Nick (William Hurt) has found success…as a drug dealer.
Along with Alex’s younger girlfriend Chloe (Meg Tilly), the group spends the weekend at Harold and Sarah’s house. They wax nostalgic for the past, lament about the present and voice uncertainty about their future. They argue, joke around with one another, drink, get high, have sex (some of them) and in the process reevaluate their lives.
It really is hard to believe that The Big Chill is now almost as old as the film’s characters. It’s even harder to believe that I myself am now far older than any of the film’s characters by a good decade or so. I was fourteen when I first saw the film — it was also one of the first movies I ever wrote a review for — and while it wasn’t necessarily a film made for someone my age at the time, it was one that hit all the right notes. I loved the cast and their characters; I was impressed by what the screenplay had to say and by Kasdan’s directorial ability to balance the serious with the humorous. And of course, I fell in love with the phenomenal soundtrack comprised of ’60s and ’70s music.
“Reuniting” with the film for the first time in nearly two decades, the film plays in a somewhat different light. For the most part, time has been kind to The Big Chill but it has allowed for the deficiencies inherent in Kasdan and Barbara Benedek’s screenplay to become more apparent. The characters are less human beings than they are platforms for the writers to make preachy statements about lost idealism that has been replaced by materialism and cynicism, the story relies heavily on convenience to movie it forward and a fair amount of the dialogue now comes across as staged and hollow.
Despite the narrative deficits, I still admire the film and appreciate many, many aspects of the production. Kasdan’s directing remains as impressive today as it did back in 1983. The filmmaker does a great job when it comes to handling the cast and examining the film’s main theme on the enduring power of friendship. The performances of the ensemble cast — in particular Hurt and Kline — is still the high point of the film. The chemistry among the eight actors is first-rate, which helps elevate their characters above their two-dimensional script origins.
As previously mentioned, some of the dialogue is a bit cringe-worthy (but nowhere near as awful as the wretched post-dinner cleanup scene). But a lot of it is not. What was funny back in 1983 still manages big laughs today, and a majority of what was effective back then still packs an emotional punch. And yes, the soundtrack still remains one of the best assembled for a motion picture in recent memory.
The High Definition Presentation
The Big Chill looks quite nice on Blu-ray. Criterion’s transfer offers up a clean print with no major issues to be had outside of an occasional scene here and there that are slightly on the darker side. Colors are solid and picture detail is fine. Film grain is present throughout without ever being obtrusive. Audio is offered in both 2.0 monaural and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound. Either track is fine. The mono sound is a faithful replication of the film’s original release and the 5.1 offers a decent upgrade when it comes to the film’s soundtrack and center-channel dialogue. If there is any sort of surround channel activity, I certainly didn’t detect it.
Beyond the Presentation
Criterion offers up a nice selection of supplemental material, a balance of old and new. The deleted scenes, trailer and 1998 documentary come from the original DVD release while the Kasdan interview, booklet and 2013 reunion Q&A are exclusive to the Criterion edition.
- The Big Chill – A Reunion (56:02): Originally produced for the 15th Anniversary DVD release, this 56-minute documentary is a comprehensive look at the making of the film.
- Success In the System (12:19): A new interview with Lawrence Kasdan in which the filmmaker talks about his career and the challenges of creating personal work within the Hollywood studio system.
- Thirtieth Anniversary Q&A (43:55): A Q&A with Kasdan and several cast members that was conducted at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
- Deleted Scenes (10:00): Sorry kids, once again there are no deleted scenes of Kevin Costner as Alex.
- Trailer: The film’s theatrical trailer
- Booklet: A rambling essay from Girls star Lena Dunham and an article from 1983 by critic Harlan Jacobson are included in a 22-page booklet.
While some aspects have not aged well The Big Chill still remains a solid comedy/drama for adults. The strong acting and great music help smooth over some of the screenplay issues that now stick out like an undercover narc at the Woodstock. Criterion has delivered a solid special edition that delivers in all departments. If you’re a fan of the film, this release comes recommended.
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