The Big Chill (1983): Banking on The Nostalgia Factor

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When a little baby boy is singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” in the bathtub — Larry Kasdan’s son — it’s the perfect introduction to this film. In fact, you always hear rumblings about The Big Chill. It’s a touchstone for a generation: For my parents’ peers.

Moments later “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” plays over the credits as all our main characters are introduced wordlessly. They all converge at a funeral to mourn the loss of their college friend Alex, who took his own life and seemed to be on a road to nowhere. He had so much promise and then seemingly wasted all his potential.

Without trying to sound too glib, this seems an apt diagnosis for the movie itself. The premise throws together a group of friends with a storied history already set in place. There’s a troubling inciting incident to dictate the parameters of the story, providing reasons and space for characters to dialogue with their individual anxieties. Each car in the funeral procession is like a conveniently contained capsule of drama.

However, despite, the fairly high-profile cast, it merely dabbles in substantial conversations on life and the existential questions that hit us in mid-life crisis moments. Is it wrong to say we never truly get to know these people aside from a few pleasantries? Because even if they know each other so well, we are never able to break the ice in the same way. We are outsiders never allowed in from the cold.

In scenes of mild interest and concern, they never amount to much aside from detached observation. Nick Carlton (William Hurt) has become the hardened cynic in years gone by (Fortune cookies have followed suit). Sarah Cooper (Glen Close) is especially emotional when she thinks of their deceased friend. Sam (Tom Berenger), a celebrated Television actor, drudges up old feelings for the dissatisfied housewife Karen (JoBeth Williams). Jeff Goldblum — who is one the most visible still, of all the ensemble — is probably the best source of comic relief. I wish there was more to be said about their relationships, but I don’t have much.

Likewise, The Big Chill is understandably lauded for its soundtrack. It’s true the music is the perfect ambient backdrop for the storyline. However, there’s one immediately apparent issue. It has no meaning in the moment, at least in a way that we can comprehend. These iconic tunes do not create a greater appreciation for the world or complement the storytelling.

Instead, it is the ubiquitous backbeat to the Baby Boom generation — a kind of audio comfort, even now. If you wanted to be cynical like Nick, you could suggest it’s all about getting a certain subset of the viewing public into the seats by banking on the nostalgia factor. It works even in the opening moments, first Three Dog Night, then Marvin Gaye, and later the casket leaving the church to the vocals of Mick Jagger in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

However, gradually the pervasive montages and the shameless use of music feel less and less discreet, never feigning any kind of purpose or meaning. This is fine. Still, it’s not quite a unified and eclectic wall of sound like American Graffiti, nor does it come to highlight the shared experience of the characters, like The Commitments harnessing of Wilson Picket’s R&B.

For that matter, “A Whiter Side of Pale” feels far more alive in the hands of Alan Parker. And instead of hearing “The Weight” as a sprawling road anthem in Easy Rider, it becomes kitchen table music as characters busy themselves with breakfast. Now totally rid of all its glory.

In full transparency, these are songs I adore. I’m protective of them, and I couldn’t even tell you how many thousands of times I’ve heard “Good Lovin’,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and some of Motown’s best singles. They too are like friends and many of them feel stripped of any substance or meaning in the context of the movie.

The same might be said of the plotline. These are harsh words, but to my mind, they’re warranted. Because The Big Chill has the potential to be something of genuine heart — pregnant with meaning and lessons about life — how we band together with our friends to get through together.

But it always feels a bit like an impostor or at least a pale imitation. I don’t doubt this movie has resonance to Larry Kasdan or else, in a world of Stars Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Body Heat, he wouldn’t have made a movie like this.

The problem is there’s nothing left in the movie where the characters strike a chord or feel altogether meaningful to me. I would argue this doesn’t fall on not being of a certain stage in life. After all, in 5 years, maybe 10, I will be exactly like these people. That’s still a stretch of time, but I have a feeling this is not what’s getting in the way. Their issues, the malaise they feel saddled with, and any number of other issues are not my own. And so I look at them, and I see no reflection of who I am or what I care about.

My mind goes to my parents. In 1983 they were just getting married. A few years later they had their first child. Then more children. It strikes me they probably never had time for this kind of self-reflection. Maybe they would have been grateful for it. But I do know they are not people to regret the road life has led them down together. At the very least, they would not be ones to overanalyze it; this dubious honor would fall on me. They were people who were too busy living life for this to ever be an issue.

It also strikes me when Nick notes friendship is tough in the real world. It’s true. The bubble of college easily insulates you from a lot. We get busy and distracted, spread out by geography, and people change and drift away. But the inevitable — at least for me — makes it all the more imperative that I cling to the friendships that mean the most to me. And I do my darndest to invest in them.

They are imperfect, but I like to think they are genuine. I’ve had the misfortune to attend funerals of friends already, and I’ve been even more fortunate to celebrate weddings and other such auspicious events. The music was good, but the time spent with my people was far better. With or without “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.”

3/5 Stars

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