A group of seven former college friends gather for a weekend reunion at a South Carolina winter house after the funeral of one of their friends.
Year 3, Film #14
THE GOOD: For a film that doesn’t really go anywhere, The Big Chill still manages to get a little something through. The seven college friends are staying in the same house for the weekend and use it as an opportunity to catch up and mend many their relationships, many of which have broken over the years. As I’ve mentioned many times before, some of my favorite films are those with minimal locations that the characters are just thrown in to and The Big Chill is a good, semi-counter example to that. I’ll get into why I mostly dislike this film in a bit, but while the seven-character, one-location setup provided the source for many of these dislikes, it also served as much of the enjoyable parts as well.
What The Big Chill does very well is show a bunch of friends (at varying states of closeness) all together. Not all films need a driving plot with an end goal to reach, some films are just enjoyable to see the journey to an unspecified end point. Much like Drinking Buddies was a great representation of relationships in the present day (2014), The Big Chill seems to be a great representation of what things were like back then (1983). Sometimes it’s just fun to see a different way of living come to life and compare it to your own life.
THE BAD: However, where The Big Chill goes wrong is that if feels like there should be a purpose instead of just watching the journey. Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is the journalist who seems like he’s going to exploit the weekend for his own benefit by writing an article about it, Harold (Kevin Kline) has the whole thing with his company being acquired soon, Sarah (Glenn Close) seems to be suffering from a depression deeper than just the passing of their friend Alex, and Nick (William Hurt) seems to be a wildcard who we never really find out where he’s coming from or what he’s going to do.
There’s all these character traits and possible plot points that are introduced and presented to us in the beginning of the film which make them out to seem important. But by the end, these are all but forgotten and we’re left with this group of friends talking to each other about what life was like back in college and how it isn’t the same anymore. Yes, that’s a great area to explore and could make a great film, but The Big Chill doesn’t provide enough insight into these character to make it work. It feels like it’s going to be a more traditional film with some big twist at the end about how one of these friends did something completely unexpected and shocking. But instead, we get the introspective reflection piece that we aren’t primed for.
Another element that is vital to this film is the editing. Editing probably plays one of the biggest roles in this film and has one of the hardest jobs because there are seven characters that we have to be introduced to, and then follow throughout the hour and forty minute runtime. The editing on this film (done by Carol Littleton) was so important that we even covered it in one of my editing classes last semester. And while I would agree that technically, the film is edited well on a scene-by-scene basis, when looked at as a whole it doesn’t stand up as well.
The scene we analyzed in particular was the opening montage where you see Sarah answer the phone call informing her of Alex’s death. After that, we see each of the seven college friends receiving the news and making their way to South Carolina for the funeral with “I Heart it Through the Grapevine” playing in the background. This montage is masterfully edited in many ways. Intercut with the friends preparing for the funeral, we see a body being dressed, first by male hands, then by female hands. The impression is that it’s a guy dressing himself, and then a woman dressing him, like a wife or girlfriend would do. At the end of the montage, we realize it’s Alex’s dead body being prepared for the coffin. With the shots of the friends, each is fairly brief, probably no more than ten or twenty seconds each. But with each of the seven people we’re provided a clue as to what kind of a person they are. Nick for example is driving a Porsche and popping pills, Meg (Mary Kay Place) is by herself in a fancy office, and Sam (Tom Berenger) is in first class on an airplane with several cocktails in front of him and a stewardess approaching him with a copy of a magazine with his face on the cover.
But while this opening montage (and a few others later on in the film) do a great job at compressing a bunch of information into small, digestible pieces, it didn’t really seem to stick or even matter in the long run. It’s one thing to do a great montage that convey all the little tiny details that I mentioned and alluded to above, but you also have to drive home some key points, like a character’s name. Halfway through the film, a couple of the friends were having a conversation about their time in college and I couldn’t follow along because I didn’t know who was who. It’s great to know that there’s a TV star among them and to get that from seeing him in first class on a plane, but if I don’t know his name is Sam, that doesn’t really help me when someone else is talking about him.
THE TAKEAWAY: The Big Chill provides a great look at a group of seven friends all dealing with grief and being together for the first time in years. However, the film feels like it has a greater purpose/direction than just being with these characters for a weekend but fails to deliver on it. And while there’s some great montage editing in small chunks, the overall editing of the film leaves question marks that could easily be fixed.
THE RATING: 2 out of 5