Tragedy has always brought together family and old friends in movies and books. This is why we get "August: Osage County" and "Mystic River"; but the film that "The Big Chill" most resembles wasn't made for another decade—"The Ice Storm". This isn't to say that "The Big Chill" is as dreary and uncomfortable as Ang Lee's movie, but the resemblances are quite striking.
Punctuated with rock songs and filled with the best performances from one of the most magnificent casts assembled, "The Big Chill" is more a testament to Lawrence Kasdan's talent and diversity than it is to anything else. With his debut, "Body Heat", he gives us a wonderfully erotic thriller and mystery; but here it's clear that his work with Steven Spielberg had a profound influence on his work, though this is more realistic and more jarring than anything Spielberg would be comfortable doing.
While it is an optimistic film in the way it treats grief, "The Big Chill" never once oversteps its emotions or tries to make us believe something that's simply not there. It's power is understated, lying within the honest of its characters...it's quite stunning.
The movie opens to the knowledge of death. A man named Alex has committed suicide in his friend's bathtub. He was living at Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close) Cooper's house with his much younger girlfriend, Chloe (Meg Tilly).
The families and friends assemble to pay their condolences, each with more quirks and oddities than the next one.
"The Big Chill" manages to tip-toe all sorts of lines between what would turn-off its audience and what is actually quality cinema. It never tries too hard to feel what its characters are feeling, and it never gives melancholy a chance to breathe. Instead of a hyper-sensitive piece, we get one that states, simply and without shame that life moves on. There are weeping moments, moments that we can't help but laugh, and moments when all that could be said is said and silence is the only option. "The Big Chill" is the best film I've seen that deals with the grieving process so truthfully.
The characters are odd, all of them old friends. There's a movie star, a druggie, a house-wife who is not in love with her husband, a rag journalist, and a single woman who wants a baby. They are played respectively by Tom Berenger, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Jeff Goldblum, and Mary Kay Place.
This tightly connected group of friends were so close a few years ago but the years have separated them. They have made their own lives and each one of them longs for the youth of their former selves as they reunite in the most dismal of circumstances.
"The Big Chill" is set in Michigan, quite cleverly. It never once says this and lets us infer the time and place from the conversations, attire, and television. In this way, it anticipates "The Ice Storm" quite well.
Another thing "The Big Chill" manages to understand is the similarity between tragedy and comedy. There are some funny moments in the movie, most of which come with a bite and most of which don't remain suspended for too long before the film crashes down on the characters again with its drama. The script is a work of art, transcending itself and becoming tangible for the audience.
We've all had weekends like this one, where it almost seemed illogical to do anything; yet, regrettably, life must move on.
The performances here are quite astonishing, the best examples being Glenn Close and William Hurt, though this is a collaborative effort if nothing else. It feels like a play and the connection between the players is so intense that you are convinced of their close friendship.
If there's another movie like "The Big Chill", it probably doesn't manage to be quite so eloquent. This is a movie that you have to see because it makes you want to live.