How many movies can claim to have a star studded cast, an amazing soundtrack, and a football game named after them? One: The Big Chill.
Released September 30, 1983 starring Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, and JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill is about a group seven college friends reuniting following the untimely death of one of their friends in South Carolina. It’s about an extended weekend with estranged friends, with explorations of life, death, money, loss, gain, sex, and love.
Thursday is about loss and misunderstanding, Friday is about reconnecting with old friends, Saturday is about Football and Sex, while Sunday is about…
The movie begins before Thursday, with one scene where the son of Sarah (Close) and Harold Cooper (Klein) is singing “Joy to the World” in the bathtub, when they learn of their friend Alex’s death, via a phone call.
From there we meet the rest of the main characters at Alex’s funeral, where we learn a little about Alex, the deceased, when the pastor says of Alex, “a brilliant physics student at the University of Michigan who paradoxically chose to turn his back on science and taste of life through a seemingly random series of occupations… Where did Alex’s hope go?” That question is hardly the most intellectual question raised in the movie, but it is something that maybe we should all think on, from time to time. I certainly don’t know where my hope is right now. Do you?
Anyway, we all know people who are seem to be at less than their full potential, or who appear to be wasting brilliance on remedial work, but to each their own. Those that seem to be wasting away, doing something that seems out of the ordinary, are usually searching for something. Commonly they don’t even know what they are searching for.
To end the service, Karen (Williams), plays “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” one of Alex’s favorite songs, on the organ as the casket is removed from the church. This one scene has prompted more Rolling Stones and classic rock fans to request that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” be played at their funeral, as well. (That includes my own father, at least he insists that anyway…) Movie funerals tend to be over dramatic or horrific (someone topples the casket, etc.), but The Big Chill’s seminal moment of bringing all the main characters together for the first time is simple and ordinary, which is why the song is the most memorable part of the service.
From there, the congregants drive to the cemetery, where two cars are focused on. The first is that of Karen and Richard Bowens, where Richard remarks, “Nothing like you described. Not at all. Not one of those people looks like I thought they would. I can’t believe these are the people you’ve talked about all these years. I’d love to hear the way you describe me to them.” This is something to consider, especially when describing friends that you’ve been estranged from. Do you describe them as they are or as they were? And if it’s the latter, does that description hold up?
In today’s social media crazy world, is this something that can still happen? Yes, in spite of everyone being connected, we get to write our own narratives, which may or may not reflect who we really are.
The second car is of Nick (Hurt) and Meg (Place), where they are getting stoned. Nick is apparently a drug dealer of some kind, and the drug use in this movie is not limited to him, but it is more widespread than one can expect for a movie like this made in today’s anti-drug culture. But Nick gets Meg stoned on the way to the cemetery. The drug use in this movie is rampant, to say the least. Beyond weed, there is booze, cocaine, and pills.
After, the burial, back at the summer house of Sarah and Harold, Michael, has one of his many great lines. “Amazing tradition. They throw you a party on the one day you can’t come.” Now, this is entirely true, but it and other lines add a humorous element to an otherwise very somber movie.
The scene of everyone unpacking for their first evening is a nostalgic look at the things that we used to cherish before smart phones, like clean underwear, socks, hair dryers, and batteries. Then as the night fades, everyone is discussing where they are and how they got there, and again Michael, gets to bring the humor with “Where I work we have only one editorial rule: No writing longer than an average person can read during an average crap.” This statement is just as valid in the Internet age as it was back then, only the means of consumption has changed.
Then the conversation turns heavy and Meg says “It’s a cold world out there. Sometimes I think I’m getting frosty myself.” I’m not sure the world has changed enough for all of that to still hold up. The world isn’t what it was when they were in college, or even what they thought it would be. Coming to the rationalization that you aren’t who you were and the world isn’t what you expected can be the same as getting the cold shoulder from your expectations. Today, the world isn’t quite as cold in the same sense, but it’s sure a lot less personal, with the less intimate Internet texting world we live in.
Nick and Sam meet Richard in the kitchen later that night and Richard talks about priorities. But the poignant part of his diatribe is “… nobody said it was going to be fun. At least nobody said it to me.” This is something that I can thoroughly agree to. It’s the reason I still, at 30+, don’t want to grow up. Being an adult may have its advantages over youth, but it’s not as fun. The truth is, he’s right. No one, along the way ever told me it was going to be fun. I had an uncle who told me that I should do something that makes me money and keeps me happy, but even that wasn’t a guarantee of fun.
Michael, who is last to get up, gets the morning rundown from Sarah over coffee, where she explains that if he’s going to sleep that late, he’s going to miss a few minidramas, where he in turn asks to be woken up for anything “really ugly.” Later, on the way out the to cabin that Alex and his girlfriend Chloe were rebuilding, Chloe proclaims, seemingly out of nowhere, “Alex and I made love the night before he died. It was fantastic.” Nick quips, “He went out with a bang, not a whimper.” Regardless, of how we go, wouldn’t we all like to go out with a bang?
The film shows a few in the group videotaping themselves and then watching the tapes. During one such taping, Michael and Sam discuss rationalizations.
Michael: “Don’t knock rationalization. Where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who can go a day or two without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”
Sam: “Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.”
Michael: “Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?”
This sentiment is truth and reminds me of staying up in college just talking with my friends. The fact that this conversation happens between friends reunited, well removed from college, gives it some credence that we will never truly grow out of who we were.
At the beginning of the Friday night Turkey dinner, we hear “You’re telling me you relax with video games? “–Don’t knock video games,” followed shortly by “–moronic interests,” “hey don’t knock morons.” Even at their most vulnerable, they are truthful and quick with each other, but more to the point they are themselves, something that comes up when the meal is over and they start discussing their grief and the loss they feel.
At the end of the Friday night Turkey dinner, Sarah says “I was at my best when I was with you people.” Sam responds, “When I lost touch with this group, I lost my idea of what I should be. Maybe that’s what happened to Alex? At least we expected something of each other then, I think we needed that.”
The tension is broken a bit when Harold asks “How much sex, fun, friendship can one man take.” The honest statement that this conversation makes is that when we are at our most unmolded unknown states, in high school and college, it is the people that we are surrounded with that shape us as much as the knowledge that we are imparted in those scholastic endeavors.
The Saturday morning kitchen scene shot with a single camera timelapsed, with the addition of the shoes on the table disappearing is simply beautiful! Then Saturday afternoon, all of these Michigan Wolverine Alumni watch the Michigan vs. Michigan St. game, which is why that game is now referred to as “The Big Chill” game.
After the game, Chloe says two very important things, while being filmed by Nick. One, “I don’t like talking about the past as much as you guys do,” and two, “He (Alex) said we made a good couple, because I had no expectations and he had too many.”
The first statement, is a comment on the movie as a whole, in addition to any gathering of old friends. In my experience, if you get a few people together in a room, they talk about the past, commonly because, if it’s not a regular gathering, the past is all they really have to talk about. The second statement, is an amazing observation on couples. It makes you think, “Do I have all the expectations? Do they?” If you start to think about the second statement and the answer isn’t immediately forthcoming, you won’t find it.
At the end of Saturday night’s Chinese dinner, Michael gets the fortune, “Friendship is the bread of life…but money is the honey.” This is possibly as cynical a fortune as one could ever receive, and given the movie, it is a perfect way to end their last full meal together.
Sunday morning, while having coffee and trying to arrange transportation to the airport, Michael says “We took a vote. We’re not leaving, we’re never leaving.” It isn’t hard to imagine that, although they may be successful in whatever they are doing and wherever they are, they would all want nothing more than to say together.
It is said as the final joke and it works, but it’s only funny because it is true.
As a Whole
At one point Chloe says, “I haven’t met that many happy people. How do they act?” The truth of this statement to normal people is, “How do they act?” I would hardly consider myself normal. I would prefer abnormal, but that’s just because I can be pompous. The truth is, we act how we act. What is normal for you isn’t normal for me, so devoid of a comparison which will always seem at odds with the control group, we are all normal and abnormal in the same breath.
The sexual tension between this group probably rivals any group of old college friends who remember and sometimes rekindle old flames when reconnecting with each other. The re-connection of this appears to be something they won’t let happen again. It is apparent that they are determined to stay in touch this time around. Whether that is because of the loss of their friend or the collective rationalization that they all need each other is besides the point. I like to think they did remain in close contact after they all left on that sunny Sunday morning.
The music accompanying this movie is a classic who’s who of 1970’s hits. Michael at one point asks, “Harold, don’t you have any other music? Like, from this century?” “There is no other music in my house,” is Harold’s reply. Seriously, I’m fine with Harold’s response, just look at the soundtrack list:
- “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones
- “(You Make Me Fell Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin
- “Good Lovin'” by The Rascals
- “In The Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett
- “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge
- “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys
- “Quicksilver Girl” by The Steve Miller Band
- “The Weight” by The Band
- “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- “Gimme Some Lovin'” by Spencer Davis Group
- “Tell Him” by The Exciters
- “Joy To The World” by Three Dog Night
- “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by The Temptations
- “My Girl” by The Temptations
- “I Second That Emotion” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
- “The Tracks Of My Tears” by The Miracles
- “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
- “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” by Procol Harum
From the funeral on Thursday to their reemergance into the real world on Sunday, this group goes through the grieving process in a very natural way. The film can now be described as a Kevin Smith film, with a focus on titillating dialogue that is both philosophical and at times humorous.
For a movie with a small ensemble cast, this one is as classic a film as you will ever see. And I’ll end with a bit of trivia. Although, you never see more than a leg, a wrist, and a hairline of Alex, the deceased, he was played by none other than Kevin Costner.