Monday, August 16, 2010

The Big Chill

Have you ever watched a TV show or movie that your parents used to swear was great, but when you watched it, it seemed...quaint?  It happens with me all the time, partially because I'm a little snotty, and partially because my dad still laughs out loud at Barney Fife.  It's not a bad thing, but it just goes to show how certain things age differently than others.  It also serves as an example to generational gaps.  I understand that; I still look back fondly at Homer Simpson falling down Springfield Gorge, but objectively, that Simpsons episode is pretty old and not very funny.  It just holds nostalgic value for me that my children will never understand.

Keep that in mind as I take a look at The Big Chill.

Alex (an uncredited --- because they left his face on the cutting room floor --- Kevin Costner) commits suicide.  His college buddies from the '60s show up for his funeral and get to catching up.  They include a married couple, Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close); a successful Magnum, PI-style television actor, Sam (Tom Berenger); an unhappy public defender, Meg (Mary Kay Place); a professional drug-dealing Vietnam veteran and former radio shrink, Nick (William Hurt); a "journalist" for People magazine, Michael (Jeff Goldblum); and a housewife that regrets marrying a "safe" husband, Karen (JoBeth Williams).  They are joined by Alex's much, much younger (and very flexible) girlfriend/amateur space cadet, Chloe (Meg Tilly).  This group (minus Chloe) went to a Division I college and more than half of them got rich.

And yet, none of them are truly happy.  Sadly, the lovely Motown soundtrack does not include a track of the smallest violin in the world playing a sad song, just for them.  Sarah once had an affair with Alex, and her relationship with Harold never had the same level of trust again; this is compounded by their decision to help financially support Alex in the months preceding his suicide.  Sam feels cheapened by his lame acting gig and wants, more than anything else, to fulfill his long desire to be with Karen.  Karen feels trapped by her boring husband and kids.  Michael is unfulfilled, writing journalistic tripe for a magazine you read in the bathroom or at the doctor's office.  Meg wants a baby, but has no suitors and her biological clock is ticking away.  Nick felt like a fraud as a radio host and balances that with his lack of self worth as a drug dealer.  Oh, and he apparently has erectile dysfunction as a side effect of going to Vietnam.  Or he has a war wound in his crotch.  Or he has a terrible STD from Vietnam.  Whatever.  The big guy has a problem with his little guy.  Chloe is just bizarre and seems attracted by damaged men.  By the time the weekend ends, all of these problems are addressed and (more or less) solved.

I think my favorite thing about this movie is the script.  It is clever and witty, and it leaves out a lot.  That might sound like a drawback, but there is a lot of great dialogue, and real conversations do not spell everything out for onlookers.  There are dozens of funny one-liners, but the script is deeper than that, forcing the viewer to come to their own conclusions about how each character feels about the rest.  As the least sexually-successful member of the group, Michael has a lot of great lines that work, regardless of context, and Jeff Goldblum delivers these lines with panache.  There is a lot of sarcasm in the script, and everyone gets a turn eventually, but I think Goldblum's lines make him the most memorable supporting character.

The acting and direction (by Lawrence Kasdan) are both pretty good, too.  Kevin Kline and William Hurt are usually pretty dependable, and they both are given some solid dialogue, so it's a win-win with them.  Jeff Goldblum is sarcastic, witty, and nobody has sex with him, which is probably as it should be.  Meg Tilly was surprisingly wonderful as the spacey young member of the group; she is alternately distant and intimate, random and on-the-nose, throughout her performance, and I imagine that is hard to pull off.  The rest of the cast (Bernenger, Place, and Williams) are decent, but nothing special.  There was one character that I outright disliked.  Glenn Close's character struck me as particularly disturbing and unrealistic.  I know Close can act, but her emotions in this movie are so unpredictable and inconsistent that I just can't deal with her.

It's not all her fault, though.  The plot for this movie is absolutely ludicrous.  I know coming-of-age stories with ensemble casts usually have a suspicious number of characters come to important conclusions by the end of the film, but this is ridiculous.  Everyone in the principal cast has a life-changing weekend?  What is this, The Breakfast Club?  I don't appreciate some of the plot devices, either.  Why would anyone sit in front of a video camera and be bluntly honest and emotional if they were planning on watching the video in front of their friends?  That is beyond awkward.  I think my biggest problem with the plot deals with Glenn Close's character.  ***SPOILER ALERT*** So Meg wants a kid, but can't find a daddy.  She asks around, and Sam won't do it, Nick can't do it, and she doesn't want Michael, so Sarah suggests her husband?  I'm sorry, but that makes no sense to me.  One the one hand, I would feel uncomfortable (at best) if Glenn Close encouraged me to cheat on her.  She is Ms. Fatal Attractions, you know.  On the other hand, where do you go after that?  How does sympathy sleeping with a friend not attract jealousy and discontent within a marriage?  It's one thing to be married to a crazy woman, but to have her allow you to cheat...well, it may seem like a blessing, but I see a death-by-butcher-knife in your future, my friend.  

If this was almost any other movie, I would give it a few stars for the clever dialogue and dock it points for the ridiculous story and predictable plot.  As it happens, though, my parents were pretty big fans of this film when I was growing up and, while the film doesn't carry as much weight for me as it did them, my early exposure left a soft spot in my heart for it.  Despite the clumsiness of the dance scenes, the implausibility of most of the romances, and almost everything relating to William Hurt's character, I am going to give this movie the benefit of the doubt.  That said, I cannot forgive the egomaniacal self-centeredness of the Baby Boomers, no matter how handsomely it is disguised.  As such, I give this tribute to rich people schtupping each other...

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