There are very few films that are genuinely evil, and even fewer that have no artistic value: Triumph of the Will or The Birth of a Nation may be “evil,” but they are undeniably masterclasses in cinematic language. So Lawrence Kasden’s sophomore feature The Big Chill has a special place in the depths of cinema hell, because it’s both evil and has no cinematic value whatsoever. No filmmaker has had a worse second film than Kasden, whose debut, Body Heat, was a rock-solid rip-off of Double Indemnity for the ’80s.
The Big Chill was also ripped off wholesale from another film, John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus 7. Although Kasden has always denied that he saw the Sayles film before he made The Big Chill, given that he was literally Spielberg’s first choice to write the script for the unmade Night Skies project that Sayles jumped onto, it’s so clearly a lie. Both films are about a group of ’60s college friends who end up having a reunion of sorts; The Big Chill uses the contrivance of a funeral for a friend who has committed suicide. In both films, the groups discuss what went wrong with their idealism, where they are now, etc.
Return of the Secaucus 7 is a good film because John Sayles comes from a working-class New Jersey background and actually has radical politics, so knew these kinds of people. The characters are better drawn out, and they are actually politically informed. The Big Chill is full of yuppie scum who cosplayed as radicals to get laid in their college years and at the first moment sold out. It offers no insight into its characters, and it’s full of the worst kind of nostalgia, buoyed by its soundtrack of boomer hits—and yet we are supposed to care about these people and their problems. The group depicted in The Big Chill exemplifies why Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump were elected, I would almost like to see a sequel where they are all obese and wearing their MAGA hats, but William Hurt died on us, so we won’t get it.
Besides the abhorrent, pro-yuppie politics of the film, it’s profoundly uncinematic. The script is just awful—it’s the kind of thing you write after you’ve written some of the greatest blockbusters of all time (The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and now want to prove that you can do something “literary” in script form. It’s shot in the flattest way possible, resulting in 100 minutes of over-privileged white people talking. Kasden even had the gall to hire one of the best cinematographers of the ’80s, John Bailey, to shoot this thing without actually using his talents.
In a purely technical fashion, I guess the performances from the cast are perfectly fine, but none of them make you want to engage with the characters and their problems. The Big Chill is such a failure that it makes Jeff Goldblum give a bland performance…. Jeff Goldblum! William Hurt plays the coke-snorting former radio host who is also a Vietnam vet, and Glenn Close is abysmal (admittedly, I’ve never been a fan.) It’s kind of interesting to see Tom Berenger play a hot-shot TV actor, which is really against the type of roles he would go on to play. Kevin Kline you just want to line up and shoot, but you could say that about every single person in the film. Kevin Costner “plays” the body of the friend who committed suicide, and you can’t blame his character for choosing that option if it meant he could avoid ever hanging out with these self-obsessed boomer scum again.
On that note, The Big Chill is THE film that the phrase “Ok Boomer!” was made for: it completely whitewashes the ’60s and laughs at what the characters claim they tried to accomplish. If you watch carefully, none of these people were particularly radical. Much like Kasden, they just went on a few anti-war marches, got high and saw Creedence Clearwater Revival. Thankfully, this film’s status has diminished greatly over the subsequent decades since its release, and I can’t imagine it will be revived much in the future.
This is a UK Criterion debut for The Big Chill. The film was released in the States by Criterion in 2014. It also issued it back on laserdisc, so that must have been partly behind the decision to put it back in the collection. I can’t imagine it’s a film that Criterion would include today with its recent move to highlight more African-American cinema after a scathing New York Times op-ed that rightfully called the company out for its lack of diversity—The Big Chill is also full of racist dog-whistles, by the way. The disc is perfectly fine, with a long making-of documentary, an interview with Kasden that barely touches on The Big Chill, a Q&A from TIFF 2013, and the film’s trailer. The booklet includes an essay by Lena Dunham, which says all you kind of really need to know about the film… speaking of privileged white people.