A few key moments standout from my experiences with the world of cinema as a child. The first time I saw Jaws and refused to go anywhere near the beach for six months. My first trip to the cinema to see The Little Mermaid and instantly falling in love with Disney animation. The moment I discovered Mary Poppins and found my childhood (and lifelong) idol in Julie Andrews. And my parents’ deep love of The Big Chill and its accompanying soundtrack.
At the time, I didn’t really get it. They loved to watch this movie and play the soundtrack relentlessly in our house. It obviously meant something to them more than most movies do. But, as children, it obviously made no sense to me or my sister, especially once we finally experienced the film for ourselves. After being given permission to watch The Big Chill for the first time, we just couldn’t understand it. This just seemed like a bunch of “old people” sitting around chatting constantly, while they smoked what I thought were cigarettes. And, naturally, the music wasn’t even remotely interesting to us. How times have changed.
I am now the age my parents were when The Big Chill was released in 1983. Revisiting the film in my early-30s is an entirely new experience where I completely connect with the film just as they did. I get it now. The references, production design and costuming are obviously outdated. The soundtrack is even more retro than it was then. No one’s tweeting, texting, or taking a selfie, which is actually rather heavenly. Donald Trump was still just a rich businessman. But something feels eternal about its narrative which manages to still strike a chord with 30-somethings of any era. If you’re at this age, it might be time to take another look.
Beginning with an infamous opening credits sequence, set to the refrains of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” a group of former college friends each learn their troubled pal Alex (played by Kevin Costner whose role was reduced to a faceless corpse in post-production) has suicided. His funeral brings the group back together for a weekend of soul searching, reconnecting, and reminiscing. Harold Cooper (Kevin Kline) and his wife Sarah (Glenn Close) seem to be tracking the best, with an expansive suburban home, a successful business, and two bouncing children. Life is great for the Coopers. The same can’t be said for the rest of the gang.
Karen (JoBeth Williams) is married to her devoted but bland advertising executive husband, Richard (Don Galloway), but finds herself frustrated with the trapped housewife she’s unwittingly become. And she’s still harbouring feelings for another member of the group, Sam (Tom Berenger), a handsome lothario who is the star of a popular Magnum P.I.-esque television drama, which he’s mortified to be a part of. The artsy member of the clan is Michael (Jeff Goldblum being typically Jeff Goldblummy) who longed to be a famous novelist but has somehow found himself working at People magazine of all places.
Nick (William Hurt) was enjoying a career as a mildly famous radio show psychologist until his conscription to the Vietnam War left him hopelessly lost and addicted to whatever drugs he can get his hands on. Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a successful but unfulfilled corporate lawyer who, as her biological clock continues to tick, begins to realise placing her career before her personal life was a huge mistake. Rounding out the group is Chloe (Meg Tilly), the waifish young “widowed” girlfriend of Alex, whose jubilant naiveté is both entirely charming and utterly maddening.
As their weekend reunion unfolds under the influence of booze, drugs, and Motown music, the group of friends will confront their past, reveal their deepest regrets and disappointments, and remember a time not so long ago when everything in life still seemed possible. Alex’s untimely death forces each of them to face their own mortality and the path their lives are taking, whether they like it or not. There are plenty of tears, laughter, and joy for our collection of lost souls each facing their own personal quarter-life crisis.
Many were familiar with the notion of a mid-life crisis, popularised by the cliché trope of the middle-aged man buying a zippy sports car, getting an earring, and running off with his 20-something secretary. But the idea of a quarter-life crisis was a relatively new term. It’s the time when your carefree days are well and truly over and the real world now beckons. For those who still have no idea of the life they wish to lead, it’s a complicated period of anxiety, confusion, and fear.
The Big Chill was not the first to cinematically present the crippling crises facing those in their late-20/early-30s. Films like The Graduate and Return of the Secaucus 7 (which The Big Chill takes hefty influence from) had tackled this issue already. But it was the one piece of cinema to capture the cultural zeitgeist with its deeply honest and emotionally resonant narrative that people genuinely related to. And it naturally didn’t hurt to have a stellar ensemble cast and one of the greatest soundtracks in film history to boost its impact further. If you don’t run out to see the film, just grab the soundtrack. Honestly, it’s a genuine dream.
But what strikes me and my 30-something eyes are the characters of The Big Chill and how genuine and earnest each truly feels. If you’re now in your 30s, you know each of these people. Or, at least, I certainly do. The one friend with the “perfect life” who married her childhood sweetheart, had a couple of kids, and now lives blissfully in the suburbs. The workaholic who is ridiculously successful in their career and doesn’t have time for a relationship but is begining to wonder if it’s really worth it. The free-spirited artist pal who accidentally fell into a career devoid of any artistic quality and can’t seem to find a way out. The broken soul who experienced a crushing tragedy in their youth and now uses alcohol or drugs to numb their pain. Maybe you even have a Chloe-type 20-something who frustrates you with their rose-coloured view of the world.
Were they all presented a little one-dimensionally? Maybe. With its rather short running time, there’s not quite enough length to fully flesh out any of these characters. Is there a sense of 1980s yuppyism that makes them a little unbearable at times? Sure, but who isn’t a little unbearable at times in their 30s. Or their 20s. Or 40s. Or any age. What I see now that I didn’t see in my youth is how accurate a depiction of your early-30s The Big Chill truly is. This is your 30s. These were your parents and this is now us. It’s an eye-opening, full-circle experience that has left me a little stunned. I see the film for what it truly was in 1983.
What The Big Chill represented to my parents was a presentation of who they had become, who they thought they would be, and where the hell it all went wrong. Their youthful days in the idealistic 1960s were over. Their desires to be the generation to change the world were slowly slipping from their grasp. They were falling into the trap of adulthood they thought they could somehow avoid. They weren’t going to be like their parents, but here they were, heading down the exact same tracks.
We were idealistic in the late 1990s/early millennium too. We thought we’d be the one to change things. We had the technology and the ideologies to learn from the mistakes of the past. We were woke before we knew what woke was. We wanted to challenge convention and make our own rules. And now the world is on fire on our watch. We’ve settled down and coupled up. We’ve done what’s expected of us and now look to the next generation to make things better. We are Harold and Sarah. Or Michael and Nick. Or Meg and Karen. We are now the cast of The Big Chill. And, as much as we’d hate to admit it, we are just like our parents.
The film also perfectly captures the fleeting nature of friendship. Each of Alex’s friend is faced with the realisation of how long it had been since they’d seen or spoken to him. Naturally, this brings out feelings of guilt over his suicide. If they had just called, would he still be here? It’s always startling how quickly time passes before you realise it’s been weeks, months, or even years since you’ve connected with someone who once meant so much to you. Even with today’s myriad of forms of communication, this is still the norm. The Big Chill stands as a reminder to reach out and reconnect, no matter how much time has passed, as sappy as that sounds.
Without The Big Chill, there may not even be the plethora of quarter-life crisis films and television series we see today. The life and troubles of 30-somethings are still everywhere in pop culture. Films like Garden State, Frances Ha, and Reality Bites exist in the same vein as this seminal 1983 classic. Certainly, the work of Lena Dunham in her film Tiny Furniture and television series Girls owe a lot to this film. And, much like my reaction as a youngster, if you’re outside the 30-something bubble, these works are likely to be just as baffling and irrelevant to you too.
The world may have changed vastly since 1983, but the existential challenges facing a 30-something are still very much the same as those faced by the characters in The Big Chill. It’s an overwhelming experience to see a film which meant so much to your parents and their generation and finally understand why it touched such a nerve. This was their life at that time and this is now my life at this time. That’s the power of a piece of cinema that can stand the test of time. That’s the enduring legacy of The Big Chill; a film which exists as an accurate depiction of life in your early-30s and is waiting for you when you get there.