Well, it took 40 years. But I was ever so glad to learn of the coming sequel to the smash comedy-drama The Big Chill, as I’m sure you were, too.
Director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film was about a group of baby boomers and University of Michigan alumni (Class of ’68) who reunite after their friend Alex — not played by Kevin Costner, after all the scenes showing his face were deleted — kills himself.
(Some may consider this the unkindest cut of all. But I can think of some other movies that would have been better if Costner had never shown his face — Waterworld, 3000 Miles to Graceland, JFK, The Bodyguard, The Postman — however, this is immaterial to our current disquisition.)
The Big Chill featured a monster rock/Motown late sixties soundtrack and an ensemble cast: Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline, JoBeth Williams and Tom Berenger as the thirtysomething boomers, along with Meg Tilly as Chloe, a woman in her early twenties who had been Alex’s girlfriend in the four months leading up to his death.
It likely has been a while since you’ve seen it, so a quick refresher: After gathering for the funeral in Beaufort, South Carolina, everyone stays at the spacious vacation home of Sarah and Harold Cooper (Close and Kline). Sarah is a doctor and Harold a fit, well-to-do businessman whose small company is about to be purchased by a larger one, thus tripling the value of the stock. He likes to jog. It was the eighties.
The Cooper children are away for the weekend so the couple can concentrate on their old college friends, drink some wine, eat good food, smoke some dope, watch a Michigan Wolverines football game on TV, stay up late playing Creedence Clearwater Revival and Percy Sledge and the Rascals and the Steve Miller Band and Spencer Davis and the Band on the stereo (cue white people dancing), all while trying to figure out what in the world had gone down in their dead friend’s head.
So far as I could tell, the only blemish in Sarah and Harold’s relationship was her brief affair with Alex five years before, which everyone seems to know about and which tarnished her friendship with the deceased. As these things often do.
Sam Weber (Berenger) is a handsome actor who plays womanizing detective J.T. Lancer on TV; Michael Gold (Goldblum; not too much of a stretch) is a quick-witted, fast-talking journalist for People magazine desperate to get laid; Meg Jones (Place) is a former public defender turned real estate attorney desperate to have a child before it’s too late; unfulfilled writer Karen Bowen (Williams) is a bored mom unhappily married to decidedly boring advertising executive Richard (Don Galloway); and finally, former talk-show psychologist Nick Carlton (Hurt) is a drug addict rendered impotent by an injury he suffered in the Vietnam War.
Speaking of unkindest cuts of all.
Given that the movie is 40 years old, I won’t qualify this with a spoiler alert: Karen sleeps with longtime crush Sam; with Sarah’s blessing, Harold sleeps with Meg in the hope of impregnating her; Michael sleeps with no one, notwithstanding his offer to Meg and several creepy attempts to flirt with Chloe, who winds up staying on with Nick after the weekend is over to renovate the house.
It’s all a bit blurry, but some other stuff happens — Michael abandons his attempts to get his friends to invest in a nightclub in New York; Sarah tearfully wonders whether all the sixties idealism in which they once fervently believed was nothing more than fashion; Nick gets in trouble with the local constabulary for running a red light; Sam hurts himself while trying to placate the cocky arresting officer by jumping into Nick’s Porsche 911 the way J.T. Lancer does on TV, and I can’t remember who won the football game or why it mattered.
Some people adored the movie, which opened the 1983 New York Film Festival. Describing it as “funny and ferociously smart,” Time reviewer Richard Corliss wrote:
These Americans are in their 30s today, but back then they were the Now Generation. Right Now: give me peace, give me justice, gimme good lovin’ For them, in the voluptuous bloom of youth, the ’60s was a banner you could carry aloft or wrap yourself inside. A verdant anarchy of politics, sex, drugs, and style carpeted the landscape. And each impulse was scored to the rollick of the new music: folk, rock, pop, R&B. The armies of the night marched to Washington, but they boogied to Liverpool and Motown. Now, in 1983, Harold & Sarah & Sam & Karen & Michael & Meg & Nick — classmates all from the University of Michigan at the end of our last interesting decade — have come to the funeral of a friend who has slashed his wrists. Alex was a charismatic prodigy of science and friendship and progressive hell raising who opted out of academe to try social work, then manual labor, then suicide. He is presented as a victim of terminal decompression from the orbital flight of his college years: a worst-case scenario his friends must ponder, probing themselves for symptoms of the disease.
So that’s what it was about! I suspected as much.
Some people, it has to be said, were less enthusiastic. Author T. Coraghessan Boyle parodied the movie in his short story The Little Chill, which opens thus: “Hal had known Rob and Irene, Jill, Harvey, Tottle, and Pesky since elementary school, and they were all 40 going on 60.”
Which brings us, at long last, to the sequel. From what I could glean from early press reports, Chloe is now 60 going on 40. The others are all in their seventies going on 20, albeit in comfortable shoes and cork sandals. You know. Like many of our friends and neighbours today.
Nick has left the building. Or his face has, anyway. Hurt was 71 when he died last March in a rather generous act of serendipity, for Nick’s funeral is what brings tout le gang back together in The Big Chill: Out Cold.
Talk about taking one for the team. Method acting at its finest.
We won’t be able to judge how successful the whole thing is until the release date, of course, but you might want to bail here if you don’t want a head’s-up on some of the key plot points.
Given what I’ve been able to piece together, there will be more drinking, cooking, smoking and rationalizing about lost dreams. Oh, and football, of course. Go, Blue! Karen is still hot to trot for Sam, even though he repeatedly confuses her with Marlo Thomas and now needs help just to get in and out of Nick’s Chevrolet Bolt. It seems Karen has never really recovered from suddenly realizing that dull husband Richard had led a former life as dull Detective Sergeant Ed Brown on Ironside.
(First clue: His square hairstyle, which never evolved. Nor, for that matter, has hers.)
You won’t be surprised to learn that like almost everyone their age, the early boomers still listen to the same music imprinted on their brains in the sixties: Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes and like that. Chloe occasionally manages to sneak a Genesis track or a smidge of Gentle Giant onto the hi-fi, but the feisty seniors make it plain that they have limited tolerance for the new stuff. Today’s music ain’t got the same soul.
Though Michael now toils pointlessly and without hope or remuneration for a blog only 30 people read (he was let go by People in one of the many downsizings that have taken place since it fell into the hands of vulture capitalist hedge fund satanists intent on selling off all the IBM Selectrics), he still hopes to someday get laid by someone swayed by his Mesozoic pickup lines. Anyone.
This is ironic for, as the movie makes clear, the only male lead not suffering from erectile dysfunction at this point is Nick, a source of much hilarity during Chloe’s soulful rendition of the old African-American spiritual Free At Last at the way-too-open-casket funeral.
Here we go, Michigan, here we go!
To divulge more (Meg’s latent gender dysphoria and desire to this time give birth as a man, for example, or the shocking nature of the relationship between Ironside’s Officer Eve Whitfield and The Mod Squad’s Linc Hayes) would be to give too much away. But I will note just in passing that 2023 also marks half a century since the release of American Graffiti, pre-Star Wars George Lucas’s nostalgic 1973 paean to small-town American life and early rock’n’roll in 1962.
Next: American Graffiti at 50: Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?