It's weird to say it, but I'm spending a lot of time these days catching up on movies that came out when I was younger that I never got around to seeing. In large part this is because the cheapest way to buy movies that I did see - and want to see again - is as part of a DVD collection.
So it was that I finally got around to seeing The Big Chill, which came out when I was 10. A slice-of-life ensemble cast film about the approach of middle age and the loss of youthful idealism would have made little impression on me, so it's just as well that I skipped it. Besides, 1983 was the year Return of the Jedi came out and that pretty much held my attention.
This is the kind of movie Hollywood used to make fairly often but it is now beyond the movie industry's creative capacity. For one thing, there aren't sufficient actors to carry the parts. When the film came out, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly still had their greatest work before them, but their talent was mature.
The plot line is pretty simple: a group of college friends stage an unplanned reunion when one of their number commits suicide. It is now more than a decade since they were bright, young things living at a co-op at the University of Michigan and over the course of a long weekend they confront the challenges and disappointments the years have brought them.
It's basically a Boomer "coming of middle age" story, and as well all know, Boomers assumed that they were the first people in world history to have issues with getting older.
To some extent, however, that was true. Previous generations valued maturity, responsibility and above all tradition. The Boomers threw all of that away, instead mocking tradition, lauding youth over experience and placing personal freedom (by which they meant short-term pleasure) over responsibility. The Big Chill is their first realization that things aren't working out the way they planned.
The story is based on events and characters writer/director Lawrence Kasdan encountered during his time at Michigan. As a Michigan State grad, I have to admit I bristled a bit when I realized these were all Wolverine alumni, but as the film progressed I was entirely satisfied to see U-M grads portrayed as a bunch of self-centered, drug-using, adulterous whiners.
Kasdan of course had already written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and would go on to pen a few more hit films in that decade, but he hasn't had much success since. He put his name on both the disappointing Episode VII as well as the unwatchable Solo movie, so his best days are clearly behind him.
Still, there's no denying that The Big Chill is an excellent film. The acting is first rate and the while the characters are less than admirable, they absolutely feel real. I can personally attest that Ann Arbor produces vast numbers of people such as these.
That actually counts for a lot. Today's writing emphasizes specialness if not perfection, and heroes (particularly women) are super-strong, super-smart and know neither doubt nor regret. This makes personal stories impossible to tell.
Talking with some of my friends, I can't think of any comparable movie that has come out in the last 20 years. For one thing, who would play the parts? Hollywood is entirely populated by super-hero actors in skinny jeans leavened with overweight minority women who supply moral authority.
No one in The Big Chill is remotely like that. One of the friends is a TV star, another a reporter for People magazine. The rest are typical professionals - doctor, lawyer, business owner. The standout is William Hurt's character, who is a Vietnam veteran who (in a nod to Hemingway) was rendered impotent by a war wound and therefore cannot consummate a relationship. Rounding out the cast is Meg Tilly's Chloe, the younger, sex kitten girlfriend of Alex, whose death brought them all together.
Alex is only briefly glimpsed, a corpse being prepared for the funeral service. He was played by Kevin Costner in flashback, but these scenes were cut and have never since been released. Kasdan decided it was better to leave Alex entirely to the cast's recollections, and he was right.
By universal acclaim, Alex was the most gifted of the lot, described as a brilliant physicist who nevertheless abandoned a career in science and worked menial jobs, hopping from place to place. He finally landed with Kline and Close (the married couple of the group), who supported his latest endeavor up to the moment of his suicide. Alex also carried on an affair with Close, but this was supposedly resolved and in the past, which of course it wasn't.
Thus, we have a complex web of relationships that need to be worked out as well as existential problems that are all played out over a weekend. It's a fall weekend, and being Michigan grads, the movie takes time out for them to watch the Michigan-Michigan State game, which is a marvelous detail to include.
Another nice touch is to borrow from George Lucas in American Graffiti and use a soundtrack comprised entirely of vintage music. By watching the characters' reactions, one gets a sense that they too are going back in time and recalling their fading youth.
It is an excellent film, but for all of the funny and tragic moments, there is a profound void in its structure, and that is its total lack of any kind of religious faith. I do not think this was by design, rather it was simply a reflection of the world Kasdan experienced in college and subsequently lived in when he made the movie.
There are a couple of nods to faith, such as the funeral and a brief appearance of a crucifix, but it's otherwise absent, both in action and words. Alex's funeral is at a local Baptist church, but no one goes to the Sunday service. These are very much secular Hippies turned Yuppies. They have their degrees, their jobs, marriages, children, houses and yet they feel hollow. All that they thought they would do has vanished and what they have left is material comfort and spiritual desolation.
Just as Game of Thrones is an unintended apologetic for Christian culture, so The Big Chill is a cautionary tale for life without faith. None of the marriages portrayed in this film are stable. The great Boomer gift of no-fault divorce looms large, and adultery is explicitly described as a morally neutral act, to be condemned or condoned only by the conditions in which it takes place.
It would be interesting to extrapolate what happens to those families in the succeeding decades and the knowledge of the world we have now makes the film all the more poignant - and damning.
Normally, I'd condemn this movie as being something very similar to Carly Simon's early work, but there is something about it that transcends my moral outrage. Instead, I feel nothing but sympathy for the broken, half-formed people portrayed in this story.