the-big-chillI’ve been older than the characters in The Big Chill for a few years now, but it remains discombobulating to me, even as the fact of it becomes more real with each passing year. That’s because Lawrence Kasdan’s film about baby boomer college friends reuniting for the funeral of one of their own was a deeply important film for me from the time I first saw it, when I had barely entered my teenage years. I related intensely to the dynamics I saw playing out in the film, not because they matched my own experiences but because there was something that I aspired to in the portrayal of camaraderie tinged with shared history. This, I thought, is what adulthood is like: fraught with the potential for emotional dissatisfaction, perhaps, but also shaped by sharp humor and an almost romantic appreciation for what’s come before. Back when I was mired in the grinding misery of adolescence there was something nice in the promise of lifelong friendship as a bulwark against the further disappointments that were sure to come. One of the characters notes, “We’re all alone out there and tomorrow we’re going out there again,” but I was more focused on the comparatively safe place he sat when offering this lament.

I’m not so egotistical to imagine that Kasdan was intending to offer my generation a guidebook to growing up when he made the film. Instead, I think Kasdan was working out the unexpected evolution that he and his peers had gone through. Though it’s not exactly a central focus, The Big Chill is preoccupied with the trajectory from 1960s youthful idealism to 1980s creature comfort-complacency as the characters stare down encroaching middle age. Much of the film takes place in the sprawling antebellum South Carolina house owned by Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close), the only pairing from the original group that wound up a married couple; Harold owns a chain of running shoe stores, Sarah is a doctor. Among those welcomed to their home after the funeral of their old friend Alex (Kevin Costner, famously cut from the film when Kasdan abandoned the idea of including flashbacks) are Sam (Tom Berenger), now the star of a “Magnum, P.I.”-style television show and Michael (Jeff Goldblum), an unctuous People magazine writer. There’s also Meg (Mary Kay Place), a real estate lawyer who gave up her altruistic plans of being a public defender, and Karen (JoBeth Williams), wife to a well-compensated but decidedly dull executive (Don Galloway). About the only one who hasn’t prospered is Nick (William Hurt), a Vietnam veteran who scrapes by selling drugs. As Sam observes, they’re a bunch of “revolutionaries” who’ve unexpectedly gone on to make “so much bread.”

the-big-chill2Set across a long weekend, the film follows these characters as they interact in various configurations, gradually revealing the anxieties that trail them into the reunion. There are compromised dreams, shaky or shattered marriages and a general sense that some old promises aren’t being kept. No one is ultimately sure if they’ve been let down or if they’re the ones responsible for their disappointment. Although Kasdan (along with credited co-writer Barbara Benedek) keeps the film deftly funny, there’s a melancholy at its core, a sense the smart aleck commentary and retreat to favorite pop songs of the past are an attempt to avoid looking soberly at the present. In this, Kasdan captured, perhaps inadvertently, something endemic to the baby boomer generation: a damaging self-absorption that made societal responsibility seem woefully uninteresting. Their interest in saving the world only lasted to the point when they realized they might be able to buy it.

Kasdan neither beats up nor celebrates his characters for their existential transgressions. The most interesting aspect of the filmmaker’s approach to this subtext may be the conflicted feelings it stirs up. There’s a clear and evident raging against the atrophy of the insurrectionist spirit in the film (Nick, the last remaining holdout against domestication, is easily the most engaging character), but also a resignation to the inevitability of settling, like sands swirling in the ocean that will eventually find their way to the bed. One of the few secrets that emerges about Alex, provided by his younger live-in girlfriend, Chloe (Meg Tilly), is that he regretted turning down a fellowship in college, opting to be a social worker instead of a privileged academic. To the others, this represented Alex’s defiance, his principled rejection of the system that most of the rest of them have bought into. That even he eventually grew weary of being on the outside looking in is a clear confirmation to his surviving friends that eventually the pendulum stops swinging. A time comes to stay in place.

I’m not sure if the lessons I find in The Big Chill now are the same ones I saw back then. There’s probably no more fitting reaction to Kasdan’s film than a different understanding based on shifting perceptions. Yes, I’m now older than the characters in The Big Chill. Maybe that means I’m wiser than them, too.

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