Judge Gordon Sullivan is a nostalgia junkie.
Our review of The Big Chill, published December 12th, 1999, is also available.
Spend some time with a few good friends.
Lawrence Kasdan has had one of the strangest careers in the post-Studio era of Hollywood. He got his start during the tail-end of the New Hollywood era, when Scorsese, Coppola, and Lucas were the big names in town. Famously, Kasdan had his script for The Bodyguard rejected over and over again before he finally landed a gig adapting George Lucas' story into Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. This lead to a string of high-profile blockbusters, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and for most people that will be his legacy. Meanwhile, his screenwriting opened the doors to directing, and his career as a director has been surprisingly varied, from the neo-noir of his debut Big Heat to the stereotypical '90s romcom of French Kiss. His reputation as a director, though, is largely based on a single film, The Big Chill. Poised pretty perfectly just after the crash of New Hollywood but before the rise of "Greed is good" capitalism, this is an ensemble drama that today feels like a perfect time capsule. Criterion have done their usual great work in bringing the film to home video in this dual-format release.
Facts of the Case
After a mutual friend commits suicide, seven college friends spend the weekend after the funeral reliving their glory days and taking stock of their lives.
The Big Chill came along at a particularly interesting moment. The Baby Boom generation had seen its idealism crash and burn in the late 1960s, and the '70s seemed to act as a kind of hangover. There was violence, uncertainty, and many attempts to forget idealism (like, for instance, disco). Then a weird thing happened—suddenly the Baby Boomers were old enough to be in charge, or at least old enough to where they could no longer just hide behind idealism and/or partying the night away. Later would come the self-justification of films like Wall Street. The Big Chill, however, is poised just at the edges of self-awareness for the Boomer generation. The characters in the film are no longer their idealistic college selves, but they're still young enough to be disappointed by their current lives.
Which is another way of saying it's a wonderful document of 1980s culture. Though it's told dramatically instead of as a documentary, the film captures the early days of '80s cocaine and Porsches along with the insular lives of college-educated, upwardly-mobile Baby Boomers. The nostalgia is thick—witness the soundtrack full of '60s classics from the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye—but the film also feels like it was made completely in the present, with no desire to look forward.
Of course even if you care not a bit about the '80s, The Big Chill is worth watching for the fantastic ensemble cast that Kasdan assembled. The characters sound like a set of writing-workshop clichés—Sam (Tom Berenger, Major League) is an alcoholic TV star who finds fame empty! Nick (William Hurt, Children of a Lesser God) is a Vietnam vet with impotence! Karen (JoBeth Williams, Poltergeist) is a housewife in a loveless marriage!—but the actors do their best to make these characters feel real. Thirty years later the characters feel more like caricatures, but it's a triumph to have assembled such a talented young cast. Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) is only on her second feature here, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) is just starting out on his string of '80s hits, and William Hurt is proving that Altered States and Body Heat weren't flukes. If the first film you saw Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda) in was The Big Chill, you could be forgiven for not thinking he was going to be one of the foremost comedians of the decade because his dramatic chops are so good.
Though Body Heat might have been my vote for first Kasdan picture to entire the Criterion Collection, on Blu-ray, there's no denying that they've done a fine job with this dual-format edition. The Blu-ray sports a 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer from a new 4K restoration of the original negative. The transfer sports a beautifully film-like look to it. Grain is thick and a bit chunky, but well-rendered. Detail is generally strong, especially in close-ups. Colors have a nostalgic glow about them, and the occasional softness seems intentional. Black levels are fine, and there are no serious compression artifacts to speak of. The highlight of both the film's audio tracks (an original LPCM mono and a remastered DTS-HD 5.1) is the music. In both cases it sounds rich and clear, with plenty of dynamic range. And the music never overpowers the dialogue. The 5.1 track uses a bit of separation and puts the music in the surrounds a bit, but both tracks are clear and easy to appreciate.
Extras start with a 1998 documentary on the making of the film that gives us 56 minutes of interviews with the cast and crew. We also get 10 minutes of deleted scenes, much of it at the funeral. New for this edition is a cast reunion from the 2013 Cannes festival. Kasdan sits down Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Meg Tilly, JoBeth Williams and Mary Kay Place to take stock 30 years later. Also new is a 2014 interview with Kasdan, who is surprisingly candid about his experiences navigating studios in the era. The film's trailer is also included. The feature and extras are also mirrored on a pair of DVDs. The usual Criterion booklet features a beautifully generous appreciation of the film from Lena Dunham alongside a 1983 piece by film critic Harlan Jacobson.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As with many time capsules, The Big Chill can be a bit dramatically inert. In contrast to a film like The Ice Storm, which has to consciously evoke its period, this one just doesn't have a lot of tension. After 30 years we know these types, know what they're going to do, and can figure out what the film is showing us from very early on. The film is always watchable—with this many good actors it would be hard for it not to be—but it doesn't feel alive in the way that great drama probably should.
The Big Chill was a cultural powerhouse, cementing the talents of a host of young actors and spawning a pair of hit soundtrack records (which themselves helped spawn the '80s revival of the soundtrack-as-album). Criterion has done another excellent job bringing the film to Blu-ray. Fans will want to upgrade their ancient (1999) DVDs for the vastly improved audio and video and informative new extras.
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