Recently Rented Reviews: The Big Chill

After a dinner party on Sunday, I broke down and finally watched “The Big Chill.”  For ten years or so, I have been making jokes about “The Big Chill,” completely undeterred by my lack of knowledge about the actual film.  A small group of us sat in the living room and screened it, while behind us another small group played a raucous game of Texas Hold Them.  In other words, it was a 4-D viewing experience.

But how was it!?!  Did it meet my expectations?  It’s hard to say.  “The Big Chill” is a film of many contradictions.  On the one hand, it’s quite well-made, and features strong performances by a murderer’s row of MOVIE STARS and character actors, including Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, and Mary Kay Place.  (Of Meg Tilly and Jo Beth Williams’ performances, let’s just say that they are “also in it.”)  Lawrence Kasdan was writing and directing a film for adults, meaning that he assumes the viewer is intelligent enough to fill in the blanks.  It’s always nice when a film doesn’t feature any awkward expository lines like “Wait, so you’re in love with her?” or “I guess I am going to have to kill myself in this bathtub now.”  It makes me think that Hollywood just might respect me after all.

On the other hand, “The Big Chill” doesn’t seem to be about anything.  You keep waiting for all the plot elements to come a boil, but they just sort of lie there.  You keep waiting for a third act where the various revelations that the characters have had motivate them to action, but that doesn’t really happen either.  Also, they never tell you why Kevin Costner killed himself, which is just plain annoying.  I realize that suicide is complicated and people are all unique snowflakes and whatnot, but we get no insight whatsoever into the character’s personality, which lies at the center of the movie.

If you haven’t seen “The Big Chill,” the basic plot is this: a bunch of semi-wealthy yuppies gather in a South Carolina mansion for a weekend to mourn the death of their friend, Kevin Costner, who killed himself there.  His young, feral girlfriend (Meg Tilly) is there too, in order that she might mutter innocent yet wise statements like a precocious little dork.

big chill meg tilly
Amelie! Put a shirt on, pls.

That’s about all that happens.  Some of the characters have sex with some of the other characters, and some of the characters have conversations with most of the other characters.  There’s a lot of character-building, see?  But it’s not in service of much.

Some of these interactions are pleasurable to watch.  Although Jeff Goldblum is miscast as a uncool striver who women don’t want to sleep with and men don’t want to be, he moves his hands around a lot and is generally pretty charming.  William Hurt is fun as a drug-dealing former radio psychologist (a tougher, meaner Frasier, if you will) who likes to make little video tapes of himself acting crazy and gossiping about how he somehow lost his dick in Vietnam.  This little nugget doesn’t get explored nearly as much as it should.  If you’re going to make the film’s most interesting character a no-penis depressed dude, for God’s sake don’t drop the issue before the story is a third of the way through.  Otherwise, you’re not paying homage to “The Sun Also Rises,” you’re parodying it.

Not believably impotent.
Not believably impotent.

The second-oddest unexplored plot in this film has got to belong to Mary Kay Place, who spends most of her screen time trying (and failing) to get her old friends to lay her so that she can enjoy the glamorous life of a single mom (you see, she’s ovulating, and her biological clock is ticking.)  Never mind that this plot (and its resolution) make no sense–who wouldn’t want to make out with Mary Kay Place?  And why does she reject Jeff Goldblum?  He is an intense man with the masterful grace of a spasming jungle cat!

It's Jeff Goldblum, dammit.
It’s Jeff Goldblum, dammit.

Why do none of Mary Kay Place’s friends point out that she is acting crazy, and that rejecting Goldblum is crazy, and that it is very hard to get preggo, and that she should probably settle down?  Oh, probably because they are all equally crazy/ciphers.  The other people in the house can briefly be described as:

  • Glenn Close doing a strange spacey angelic thing that I found very unsettling (I kept waiting for her to lose it and boil a rabbit);
  • Tom Berenger playing a riff on Magnum P.I. (his character plays a popular TV detective who lives in Miami, but what Ol’ Tom really wants to do is act his heart out, or something);
  • Kevin Kline trying to act butch and Southern, despite his penchant for running through the mist with other men whilst clad in booty shorts (his major character development comes when he buys the gang matching sneakers and jumpsuits)
  • Jo Beth Williams acting slightly angsty (she doesn’t like her husband, and she and her husband are both convinced that their house is too loud, due to children.  Why are their children so loud?  It is never explained.)

Most of the film’s action consists of these characters doing this:

big chill dinner
I hate hipster dinner parties.

Now, dinner party movies can be great, but only if some stuff happens.  (See “Dinner at 8,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and “The Last Supper” for some stellar examples.)  Yet, in this dinner party movie, the only thing that happens is slightly awkward silences, followed by more cool conversation.  Observe:

Thrill to the slightly discordant mise-en-scene of this shot!
Thrill to the slightly discordant mise-en-scene of this shot!

I mean, where’s the murdering?  The psychotic breaks?  The explosive revelations that cause our characters to reevaluate their whole lives?  Not here.  Instead, Mary Kay Place goes around with a mug that screams “Girl, please,” while Jo Beth Williams looks vaguely pained (if not absolutely hemorrhoidal.)  Jo Beth’s basic plot consisted of bitching about how having kids has kept her from becoming a writer.  Yet, in the same conversation, she complains about her housekeeper.  If she has school-age children AND a housekeeper, what’s to keep Jo Beth from writing all she pleases?  She then decides to try to get Tom Berenger, at which point I lost all sympathy for her.  Ho, your husband has a JOB and he manages to maintain his hobbies.  Why can’t you?

Jo Beth Williams is lazier than most cats.
Jo Beth Williams is lazier than most cats. Also, she’s shown here flirting at a funeral. Look at your husband, acting normal and keeping his eyes on the minister. Why can’t you be normal like your husband, Jo Beth Williams?

Surprisingly, the script makes the assumption that viewers are real invested in the Williams-Berenger pairing.  This was not a smart thing to do.  If there’s a screen pairing with less chemistry than Berenger and Williams, I’ve yet to see it.  It’s as bad as the Jack Black and Michael Cera pairing in “Year One,” yet somehow more inert.  We’re supposed to care about Berenger and Williams because of their star-crossed past.  But we never see this star-crossed past; as far as we are concerned, these jerks just met a half hour ago.  This mistake is emblematic of one the film makes across the board.  It wants us to give a crap about the relationships between these characters, but it shows us little of their history together.  As I watched “The Big Chill,” I kept wishing that I was watching its prequel.  The stories that the characters told about their wild college days sounded infinitely more entertaining to see than watching them rehashing them.

Quit talking about your wild past, Tom Berenger!
Quit talking about your wild past, Tom Berenger!

I mean, watching Jeff Goldblum lose his integrity sounds more fun than watching Jeff Goldblum casually chat about how he may have lost his integrity, right?  Watching Mary Kay Place and Jeff Goldblum break up sounds more fun than watching them be totally over each other while watching a football game, correct?

Of all the actors, I think Mary Kay Place does the best job of grounding the proceedings.  William Hurt is stuck in another, more interesting movie; Kevin Kline is mired in a gay porno (complete with stern, wiry cops); and Tom Berenger seems completely checked out.  But Mary Kay looks amused and sour the whole time, which makes her dumb plot line easier to take.

Oh, you're going to let me use your husband as a stud? Fine, I guess.
Oh, you’re going to let me use your husband as a stud? Fine, I guess.

Kevin Kline and Glenn Close kind of do the shittiest jobs; then again, their characters suck.  Kevin is rich and he hates all of his friends for some reason that is not gone into sufficiently; Glenn Close was in love with Kevin Costner and is a doctor.  At no moment do you believe that:

a.)  Kevin Kline is rich;

b.)  This couple is married to each other;

c.)  That Glenn Close knows what a band-aid is;

d.)  That Glenn Close has ever had sex;

e.)  That Kevin Kline knows where the South is (despite the film being filmed on location.)

Obviously, neither of these actors are shitty, so I guess we can blame the casting director.  You should never cast Kevin Kline as a serious dude because he is a weird loon, and you should never cast Glenn Close as an earth mother because she is ice cold.  Those are just truths, and “The Big Chill” makes them self-evident.

Neither earthy nor sensual, despite the plaid.
Neither earthy nor sensual, despite the plaid.

However, although “The Big Chill” has many terrible faults, I still think you should watch it.  For one thing, the soundtrack is decent.  For another, it will help you to understand Boomers better, and God knows the Boomers have gotten little media attention over the last five decades.  Plus, its very faults can be virtues, at least in the right company.

MORAL: Making fun of Kevin Kline can be its own reward.

I'M SERIOUS, DAMMIT.
I’M SERIOUS, DAMMIT.

P.S.  It must needs be pointed out that although only parts of Kevin Costner’s appear in “The Big Chill,” he has an entire film’s worth of scenes that were left on the cutting room floor.  I don’t know what anybody was thinking.  Look at this:

Look ye and despair.
Look ye and despair.

For shame, Lawrence Kasdan.  For shame.

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