Before the semester is up this spring we are taking another peek into the Video Vault, to examine a memorable film from 1983. It involves a group of friends who all graduated from the University of Michigan with high ideals, only to have the reality of adult responsibilities invade their lives.  

The Big Chill, directed by Lawrence Kasdan (Mumford, The Accidental Tourist,) delivers this delightful and warm tale of a group of college buddies reunited for the funeral of one of their schoolmates. Screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek have created a narrative which demonstrates the degrees of angst felt by each character as they grapple with the suicide of their friend, Alex, who the viewer meets via close-up shots at the film’s opening as the body is being dressed and prepared for funeral viewing. Marvin Gaye’s excellent version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is the opening song as the cast and credits are rolling and the buttons are buttoned, the hair is brushed and the tie is straightened on the unseen corpse.

The cast is headed by Kevin Kline, who plays Harold, and Glenn Close, who plays Harold’s wife, Sarah. Harold and Sarah host the reception following the funeral and their home is the setting for the film. It has been almost fifteen years since graduation and the group, having lost touch over the years, needs a reason to reconnect. The classmates, who have come for the occasion, find that it would be easier, for a variety of reasons, to just stay the weekend with Harold and Sarah. Get a bunch of 30-something friends together in a big house for a weekend, add a variety of illegal substances and alcohol and you have a pretty intriguing story. The five houseguests are played by Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams and William Hurt. The cast is filled out by actress Meg Tilly in one of her earliest roles, as the deceased Alex’s young girlfriend. Each character is introduced at the luncheon. We learn who they are and what they do for a living. As the film goes on we learn the strengths and weaknesses of each character, what their past failures were and what it is in each one’s life that is disappointing to them.

It takes drugs and plenty of alcohol to get the characters talking and revealing what they most wanted out of life when they were young and what they eventually ended up with so far. They speak of their misunderstanding of why their friend decided to end his life, and they comfort one another over and over again. But the film is not entirely depressing. There are numerous situations of humor and wisecracks, but it never becomes slapstick or raunchy. The relationships between the various characters are engrossing and the way the soundtrack is used to add emphasis to situations that arise is pure magic. As the group likely graduated sometime just prior to 1970, the soundtrack is one of the best aspects of the film. It includes classic hits by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Aretha Franklin, Procol Harum and Smokey Robinson.  

By the film’s end, attachments are renewed, personal problems are resolved and hope is given new strength. The friends realize they all share a collective experience, but it’s an experience each must grasp for themselves. The film was nominated in 1984 for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Glenn Close. The crux of the film can be summed up in a song on the soundtrack by the Rolling Stones: You can’t always get what you want.