Saturday, December 11, 2010

"The Big Chill"

Make no bones about it - I love this movie. I've seen it so many times now that I have most of the dialogue memorized, and begin to smile even before the funniest lines are read onscreen.

The movie has a 7.1 rating on the Internet Movie Database, which is good but not great. It received mostly positive reviews upon its release, but some leading critics - Roger Ebert included - thought it mediocre. Rock critic Dave Marsh also blasted it at one point or another, mostly criticizing the film's sense of nostalgia and the shallow politics of its characters.

Marsh's criticisms are somewhat valid - to this day, I cringe a little bit when Harold Cooper (Kevin Kline) makes his comment about there having been no great music released since the 1960s. It's an attitude I've railed against plenty in my lifetime, and it just isn't true. And when you hear someone say something like that, you can pretty much guarantee that they have a closed mind about a great many things.

But, 27 years later (which I can hardly believe), the movie can be watched and enjoyed on the basis of how it portrays the relationships between the characters, rather than on the politics of those characters. Frankly, those politics weren't particularly believable in the first place - to believe that all seven of those characters morphed from being college radicals to becoming successful capitalists is just a little bit too much belief suspension to expect from any audience.

But no matter - because the writing and acting are superb, and there is a great deal of truth to how each character has come to grips with their own lives, and is now trying to figure out how to work their loved friends into that reality. If the movie strikes a false note at all, it's on its seeming insistence that those friends were "better" in college than they are now, when that just isn't true. You can't possibly know such things when you're 23 years old (my age when I first saw the movie), but after a lifetime of living and experience, you know that it can't be true. As Nick (William Hurt) says to Sam (Tom Berenger),

"A long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time; you don't know anything about me. It was easy back then. No one had a cushier birth than we did. It's not surprising our friendship could survive that. It's only out there in the real world that it gets tough."

The only character that truly comes off as unlikable is Karen Bowens (JoBeth Williams), and that could be because writer-director Lawrence Kasdan decided to make her the example of what happens when you "drop your dreams and decide to have children instead." Of all the roles in the movie, this is probably the one that is most under-written, and it ends up as a choice that isn't really real. You don't "give up yourself" when you choose a different path, and that seems to be the argument that Kasdan is making with the character.

The other actors are all given wonderful, and wonderfully funny, lines to work with, particularly Jeff Goldblum as Michael Gold, the quick-witted and somewhat cynical writer for People Magazine, who writes articles that can't be any longer "than it takes to read during the average crap." Of particular note are Mary Kay Place, whose character after all these years seems more real than any of the others, and Meg Tilly, who turns in a terrific "fish out of water" performance as Chloe, the young but very wise woman who was living with Alex (the character who committed suicide, bringing all the friends together again) at the time of his death. She doesn't know these people, but she seems to instinctively know when they are wandering in absurdity, and there is a wonderful moment when you can see that she really wants to say something to snap them back to reality, but holds back at the last moment.

So it may not be a perfect movie - but it's sure close enough for me.

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