50 Movies for 50 States: Week 42 – South Carolina, Film – The Big Chill

Week 42 – South Carolina

The Big Chill (1983), produced by Columbia Pictures and Carson Productions, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, written by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, with Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly and JoBeth Williams, cinematography by John Bailey

And now, another story about a group of baby boomers who are reunited for one very special weekend in the early 1980s.

The movie is The Big Chill – and after watching for the first time, I’m willing to take the word of director Lawrence Kasdan, who says he had never seen John Sayles’ The Return of The Secaucus Seven before writing and directing his own vision of a group of college friends who have drifted apart, are brought back together, and come to realize that while some things change and other things stay the same, that all of us are at the mercy of the unstoppable force of time.

So, let’s get this out of the way first. While The Return of The Secaucus Seven (1980) and The Big Chill (1983) share similar themes and plot – I hardly see one as a copy of the other. After all, what person over the age of 30 hasn’t experienced a reunion of some sort during their lifetime? Who hasn’t had a moment of shared togetherness with someone they haven’t seen in a long time simply because of their shared experiences? Who hasn’t had the deal with the awkwardness of having something left unresolved with a once-close friend they haven’t seen in years? Is it really that hard to fathom two people would unknowingly and separately think to pick up a camera and film this type of scenario?

And while it is odd that the movies are only separated by a three-year gap, it makes sense that both Sayles and Kasdan would be the types to make movies like The Big Chill and The Return of The Secaucus Seven. If any generation had a good reason to be retrospective, it was the one to which Sayles and Kasdan belonged. They belonged to a generation which – as youth – lived through one hell of a decade. They were the ones who, in the 1960s, were supposed to change the world. They were those young revolutionaries, full of rebellion and spunk.

Then … they grew up, woke up one morning and Ronald Reagan was president.

“Everything used to be so groovy,” moaned one ex-hippy, as he buttoned up his three-piece suit, kissed his wife goodbye, and got ready to catch the bus to his job at the bank. “What happened?”

“What happened?” would have been a great closing line to The Big Chill. But I didn’t write The Big Chill. Lawrence Kasdan did, the screenwriter who was responsible for such epic masterpieces as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. You may have heard of those two, unless you’re the type of person who’s never seen The Goonies.

Speaking of which, there are probably some of you that find it unfathomable that I had never seen The Big Chill. It was a very popular movie. However, I was four years old when it was released.

Also, just because I do not feel that The Big Chill is a blatant rip-off of The Return of the Secaucus Seven does not mean I am above comparing the two films. Because there is much to compare. Plus, I’m going to need the comparison angle if I’m to write a column of any size length, because I certainly can’t fill up a lot of space talking about the plot. As I’ve made it clear, if you’ve read my review of The Return of the Secaucus Seven, you know what you’re getting here. The big difference, right from the start, is that in The Big Chill there is a reason for long-lost friends to reunite. Unlike The Return of the Secaucus Seven, it’s not a reunion for the sake of a reunion.

There are two main kinds of forced reunions. The first is a wedding. The second is a funeral. The Big Chill uses the second event as the device with which to bring our college chums back under the same roof – if it had been a wedding, certainly the title of the film would have taken on a whole new meaning. The Big Chill could be the chill of death or the chilling realization of life’s fragility or the chilliness between a group that was once tight and now vaguely remember the last time they were in the same place at the same time. Remember this current college kids who might be reading this column: the friends you have now you will not have forever. The ones who are important stick around. The others you may have avoided communicating with, you probably did so for a reason – or vice versa.

When you force a reunion or a reunion is forced upon you, don’t be surprised when it’s awkward. At the start of the film, our characters – who I will refer to by their “real” names rather than their character names out of laziness – er – simplicity – are kind of stiff around each other. Remember, it’s been about fifteen years since most of them have spent time together.

And boy do these people have issues.

Tom Berenger, who plays an actor and star of a primetime Magnum P.I.-esque cop show, is upset with Jeff Goldblum, who plays a journalist, over an article published by Goldblum’s employer. Mary Kay Place, who plays a lawyer, wants to have a baby and has decided to use this weekend to choose one of her male friends to help her with that. Glenn Close, who is married to Kevin Kline, had an affair with Kevin Costner – who is never actually seen in the movie but whose suicide has brought everyone together again. (Scenes in which Costner plays the corpse were cut from the final film. Costner, still a relatively unknown actor, was a friend of Kasdan’s.)

Compared to the Secaucus Seven crew, the Big Chill bunch are better-looking and less smarmy – which makes them easier to tolerate but somewhat less believable as characters. With lawyers, movie stars, successful journalists – there’s hardly a weak link in this group. John Hurt is the one character who might be considered kind of a dud – bouncing from career to career and indulging in all sorts of illicit substances. But even Hurt drives a Porsche, so he must be doing something right. He also gets to have sex with Meg Tilly, who plays the spacey ex-girlfriend of Costner.

While the Secaucus Seven is more interested in activities like skinny-dipping and guilt-free sex, the Big Chill group is less self-conscious when it comes to stuff like dancing around the kitchen to the greatest hits of the 1960s – which, by the way, is another area where The Big Chill trumps Secaucus Seven … its soundtrack. Not only is it full of great songs, Kasdan uses the music really well to underscore the story. The opening scene, where the group of friends are learning about Costner’s suicide, set to the tune of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is probably one of the best uses of pop music in cinema ever.

What it comes down to is, who would you rather spend an afternoon hanging out with? Because that’s probably the same group you won’t mind spending an hour and a half with – which is like … forever in movie years. For me, the choice is easy: Berenger, Goldblum, Place, Close, Kline, Hurt, Jobeth Williams, and Tilly. As for Secaucus Seven‘s what’s-her-name, what’s-his-face, that girl, that guy, and the one-with-the-guitar … I don’t even think they’d accept me into their group, which is fine by me.

If you’re one of the few people left who hasn’t seen The Big Chill, check it out. It was a Best Picture nominee, if that means anything to you. I’m not sure if it’s Best Picture material, but at least it’s not Wooly Boys.

Next week: Dakota Part II…

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