by Pauline Kael
Anyone who believes himself to have been a revolutionary or a deeply committed radical during his student-demonstration days in the late sixties is likely to find The Big Chill, which opened the recent New York Film Festival, despicable. And if the advance publicity for the film has led you to expect a serious, “personal” movie about how the late-sixties campus activists have adjusted to becoming the kind of people they used to insult, you may find it pretty offensive. It’s no more than an amiable, slick comedy with some very well-directed repartee and skillful performances. It’s overcontrolled, it’s shallow, it’s a series of contrivances. But there are pleasures to be had from this kind of wisecracking contemporary movie that you can’t get from anything else.
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the script with Barbara Benedek, it’s set in South Carolina, where a group of seven former friends from the University of Michigan gather for the funeral of Alex, the campus radical who brought them together, and who has now, after years of flailing about disconsolately, slit his wrists. The movie is, nonetheless, lighthearted from the start. It may pretend to be about “life,” but it’s really about being clever (even the title tells you that), and about the fun of ensemble acting. It begins with a little game-playing: glimpses of two pairs of hands—one pair with sexy long red fingernails—as they adjust a man’s very spiffy clothes. The man turns out to be the corpse being dressed. This amusingly callous, slightly tawdry gag, planned so immaculately that it suggests a parody of American Gigolo, sets the film’s tone. (It’s a shame that Alex’s old friends don’t get to admire his fancy duds, but it appears that he was accoutred for us, not for them—it’s a closed-coffin ceremony.) After the funeral, the friends—all in their mid-thirties—feel the need to be with each other again. They bury the sixties (which Alex symbolizes) and then dredge them up to talk about. The out-of-towners stick around for the weekend, at the spacious home of the only two of the old group who married within it; the husband, who has done well in the running-shoes business, is played by Kevin Kline, and his wife, a doctor, by Glenn Close. These two are also the happiest of the seven surviving friends. Kline (who, for the first time, relaxes in front of the camera and comes across as a character rather than an actor) is a man of substance here, a quick-witted fellow who adores his kids and feels no guilt about making money. He doesn’t look back, except musically; the sixties for him are the rock ’n’ roll records he loves, which we hear throughout the movie—“Joy to the World,” Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman,” the Stones, the Band, and so on. His wife had a long emotional attachment to Alex and a brief sexual one, and she’s torn up by his death, but she’s a warm, nurturing woman, and will be fine.
As soon as you see how warm she is, you begin to see the film’s flabby side—the seven characters are like a psych major’s sexually integrated version of a forties bomber crew. The pleasures of The Big Chill are the pleasures of the synthetic; it’s all tricks, but craftsmanlike, exemplary tricks. Glenn Close’s opposite number is JoBeth Williams, the dissatisfied wife of an advertising executive, a tough bitch who means to leave him and nail the most famous of the group—Tom Berenger, a TV star, who is dissatisfied in his own way (he seems to be in a state of suspended animation) but is not about to be nailed. She’s furious when, ever so gently, he turns her down. The likable Mary Kay Place has perhaps the worst role: she’s a lawyer who gave up on her idealistically motivated legal-aid job and went into corporate law. Unmarried, disappointed with everything she has been involved in since her college days, she wants a child and hopes to conceive one this weekend by one of the old friends she loves and trusts. Mary Kay Place brings a soft, self-deprecating wryness to the part, but it still reeks of cheap poignancy, which is compounded when the man who is her first choice—William Hurt—turns out to have been made impotent by the wounds he suffered in Vietnam. This device should probably be marked “Property of Hemingway” and retired, but, still, working with it, Hurt gives the best performance of his young movie career. As a man who lives by dealing drugs and is his own chief customer, he looks doughy and unhealthy, as if he’d lost touch with his own life. He’s quiet, and maybe because he isn’t acting all over the landscape and commandeering our attention, he’s very appealing. The seventh, Jeff Goldblum, a writer for People and a man of stunning superficiality, takes himself very seriously. His tall, gangling body, his pointed head, and his scowling face and bobbling Adam’s apple are all involved in whatever he’s saying; he’s a living cartoon—a man who wrinkles his forehead to think. This is probably the best-written role that Goldblum has had since the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and he gives his fatuous remarks a huffy delivery that makes him the butt of his own lines; his huge eyes, behind specs, never let on that he knows he’s funny. He’s got a real comic creation here: a worrywart, a young old geezer.
There are nifty details in this movie, such as the name of the chain of running-shoe stores that Kevin Kline has built up (Running Dogs—remember the revisionists of the Chinese Revolution?), and Kline’s little son’s knowing the lyrics of the sixties songs. Sometimes details are punched up too mechanically: cuts to Hurt’s single earring or to Mary Kay Place’s young-professional outfit, for example. At times you may feel as if the cutting followed the script exactly—as if you were seeing a blueprint. And there’s an early montage of the characters reacting to the news (the big chill) and packing their suitcases; it’s a guerrilla tactic—to expose these people before we even meet them. A little later we get a montage of them unpacking, and even glimpses of what’s on their night tables. And it’s too cute, with items like an anthology of Kafka. The movie might have been inspired by a screenwriting manual that tells its purchasers to make lists for each character: What’s he reading? What kind of clothes does he wear? What would he pack for a trip? Yet the film’s details help you past the obviousness of most of the roles—the women’s especially, and also Berenger’s. He’s not bad at all; his apologetic narcissism is rather touching—with his bushy blow-dried hair and thick mustache, he’s a sheepish ringer for Tom Selleck. But he really has only one terrific scene: when the whole group rushes to the TV set to watch the opening credits of his hit series “J. T. Lancer”—which show him as the daredevil hero, leaping from one hazard to the next—and he’s compelled to look. The film is often weak when two people go off and bare their souls, but the group scenes have snap and proficiency, and they show Kasdan’s flair as a director.
Most directors are at a loss when they try to shoot ensemble scenes, and John Sayles, when he made the 1980 Return of the Secaucus 7—a sixties-reunion film with a similar houseparty structure but an unslick tone—didn’t seem to have any idea of how to use the camera as an active participant, pinpointing what was going on. Kasdan keeps the camera jumping for the gag (the way Sydney Pollack did in Tootsie), and in the ensemble scenes you can almost hear the crackle as he hits the effects he wants. There’s also an eighth person—an observer—in the house with the group: Meg Tilly plays the young girl with whom Alex was living at the time of his suicide. She’s ten to fifteen years younger than the others, and, with her small, delicate features and wide-apart almond eyes, she seems to stand for a generation born shell-shocked and wise—or is it stoned and empty of anything but matter-of-fact considerations? Her role is perhaps too conceptual, and there probably should be a little more going on in the character, but she’s an extraordinarily lovely presence. Secaucus 7 had an outsider in some scenes, too: the local fellow, Howie (played by Sayles himself), who hadn’t gone off to college—who’d married and was raising a family. Howie had what the others, with their hipness, had lost, and he made us aware that the Secaucus 7 were all childless and unrooted. Here, Meg Tilly makes us conscious of how articulate the whole bunch is. It’s easy to see why Alex turned to this restful girl—she’s a refuge from ideas—and it’s very pleasing when she and William Hurt find a rapport.
The remarkable thing about this movie is that the actors don’t destroy themselves even in their maudlin moments. Glenn Close has an icky “generous” scene toward the end—she makes it work by the sheer silliness of her expression. Whenever Kasdan tries for depth, the movie is phony, but a lot of the time it manages to turn phoniness into fun—which is in a long if not so great Hollywood tradition.
The New Yorker, October 17, 1983