Film & TV

The Big Chill: When Boomers Stumble on the Truth about Their Own Failings

Kevin Kline in the opening sequence of The Big Chill. (Criterion Collection/via YouTube)
How the quintessential Boomer movie developed into an unintended parable about how the Flower Power generation missed what actually went wrong

When the movie version of The Right Stuff flopped in the fall of 1983, Tom Wolfe, who wrote the book upon which it was based, noted that audience research indicated moviegoers intended to see the film because they knew it was important, but they said they didn’t want to see it right now. “Tonight,” they’d say, “we just want to be entertained.”

So what were the big crowd-pleasers at the multiplex then? One of the two biggest box-office hits of the season was a James Bond picture (Never Say Never Again). The other was The Big Chill. Here we pause for a moment of silent reflection that a movie about people gathering to talk after a friend commits suicide was 1983’s idea of a breezy night out.

The Big Chill was a major cinematic event in 1983, earning $56 million at the box office (about $150 million today) and getting Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, plus Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close). Boomer audiences absolutely adored it and made the soundtrack a huge hit as well. It’s amusing to note that this movie about how yippies turned yuppies (Kevin Kline’s Harold, the host of the gathering, has gotten rich by opening a chain of “Running Dog” sneaker stores) was itself an element in a synergistic corporate-branding strategy.

The Motown-released soundtrack was key to reviving the label’s value as a nostalgia brand after key artists, such as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Marvin Gaye, had left. On the backs of The Big Chill soundtrack, which surpassed the Saturday Night Fever album to become the longest-charting movie soundtrack album, Motown’s strategy evolved to a nostalgia play. It began strip-mining its catalogue for licensing deals, throwback television specials, and other exploitation of Boomer memories (Gaye’s recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” became the anthem of a raisin commercial). Scarcely eleven years after the Flower Power dream died with the defeat of George McGovern, the Boomer-nostalgia industry was bursting into full bloom. Consider how little 2010 nostalgia you see around you today, and you’ll quickly grasp how unusual Boomers were in choosing to handcuff themselves to a single moment while everyone else adapted.

When it appeared, The Big Chill seemed to be about many things: love, sex, friendship, drugs, nostalgia, and leftover Sixties ideals. Today, though, it’s centrally and conspicuously about one thing: the sound of entitled Boomers whining. (It’s available on TCM’s app through April 10.)

To recap the action: A handsome n’er-do-well staying in his friends’ gigantic Southern plantation-style summer house with his hot younger girlfriend kills himself by slitting his wrists. So his old college friends from the University of Michigan (class of approximately 1971) gather at the same house to mourn him for the weekend. They are a physician (Close) and her husband (Kline), the sneaker-store tycoon; a TV star (Tom Berenger); a People-magazine writer (Jeff Goldblum); a rich attorney (Mary Kay Place); a drug dealer (William Hurt); and a housewife (JoBeth Williams) whose husband is a well-off ad executive. When everyone announces they intend to stay at the house for the weekend, Close’s Sarah Cooper whines, “Where are we gonna put everybody?” (It’s a real house: five bedrooms, five baths, 7,300 square feet, not counting the guest house.)

As funny, deeply felt, and expressive of its characters’ pain as the film is — and I’ve always loved it, since watching it many times on HBO at age 18 — today it’s fascinating for its obtuseness. The characters analyze themselves ceaselessly (to the point of videotaping interviews of themselves and one another) yet miss the most obvious things: Drug abuse, infidelity, and unrealistic expectations about life are poisoning them. These Boomers’ parents could have straightened them out in about five minutes, but Boomers are famously the generation that thought it could learn nothing from previous ones.

William Hurt’s Nick, for instance, a character who seems to have strolled in from The Sun Also Rises (a Vietnam War wound left him impotent), had a perfectly good gig as a talk-radio shrink but left that in a crisis of meaning. He needs to quit dealing drugs and stop burying his problems with quaaludes, cocaine, and pot. If there were a sequel to this movie set in the Nineties, Nick would probably be dead because none of his friends bothered to push him into rehab. Instead, Harold offers him a flagrantly illegal insider-trading tip, which Harold hopes will lead to Nick’s getting a new job but could just as easily lead to Nick’s spending even more money on drugs.

More glaring than the drug problem in the movie, though, is the adultery problem. Sarah cheated on Harold with Alex because, she says, “I was just sick of being such a good girl.” People journo Michael has a girlfriend in New York City but has nevertheless brought a stack of condoms on this trip and starts hitting on Chloe during the funeral service. Sam the actor apparently cheated on his ex-wife, whom he left muttering the classic Boomer complaint of “boredom.” Karen is willing to cheat on her perfectly fine husband Richard with Sam if he’s up for it. Sam initially turns her down for her own good, but later the pair go at it anyway.

I’m not even counting the famously magnanimous adulterous bonk, the unforgettable scene in which Sarah loans her husband Harold out to stud with Meg in order to impregnate the unhappy lawyer, whose most profound wish it is to have a child, though she previously had an abortion. By the way, neither Sarah nor Harold considers him to have any paternal responsibility whatsoever for any child that might result, just as Sam doesn’t like visiting his daughter because she is an uncomfortable reminder of his flaws. Let’s hear it for Boomer parenting.

The disillusionment plaguing the characters amounts to moping about careers, all but one of which are nothing to be ashamed of. Yet all but one of the characters are framed as sellouts. What’s wrong with selling Nike sneakers? Meg is a real-estate lawyer; good for her. In a previous life, she was a public defender who decided she didn’t actually like working for rapists and murderers. “Some of them are scum,” notes Harold, the sneaker guy. Goldblum’s Michael once intended to “go to Harlem and teach those ghetto kids,” and his girlfriend still does, but instead he flies around the country writing celebrity profiles that are only “32 paragraphs.” I picture 25-year-old journalists who are lucky to get paid to write a story of one-third that length wanting to zap Goldblum with the Melt Stick he used in Thor: Ragnarok, and that’s before anyone tells them about the extravagant salaries that People writers used to command, which would probably cover about six HuffPost writers today. What exactly has this guy got to complain about? Maybe he should stop cheating on his girlfriend and just be a good magazine writer instead of confusing himself with Albert Camus.

Similarly, the housewife Karen has a perfectly nice life, yet she’s considering throwing it all away because it isn’t ideal. Let’s examine her complaints: “I feel like I have never been alone in my own house. Either Richard is there, or the boys, or the housekeeper.” Sorry, Karen, but that’s not a real problem. Get yourself some time alone once in a while — Richard will understand. As for Karen’s complaint that she never gets to work on her fiction anymore, well, that’s an excuse a lot of nonwriters have. Either make time for it (say, by spending less time watching TV), or admit that you aren’t actually a fiction writer.

Maybe Karen’s husband is a bit boring, but he’s also, as she admits, a really good guy. Moreover, that dullard of a husband, Richard (the late Don Galloway, who later in life wrote a libertarian newspaper column), is the secret hero of the film. Because Galloway plays his man as a hopeless corporate dweeb (he drinks milk when the others are getting high), it doesn’t sink in with either the audience or the other characters that he has the surest grip on life: You make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in. What you don’t do is agonize about failing to live up to some unreachable ideal. The Michigan Seven in the film speak of themselves as “revolutionaries,” marinate in memories of the March on Washington, and wish they could have spent their lives working with “Huey and Bobby” (the Black Panthers). But this was a mere moment in time that happened to coincide with their college years.

“I’d hate to think it was all just fashion,” says Sarah, but, yeah, that is pretty much what it was. Richard gets this. He accurately describes a much more important priority for grownups: raising children. Parenting puts more selfish concerns in their proper perspective and, ideally, binds the parents by giving them a common goal. “The thing about kids is they’re instant priorities. You know you have to protect them and provide for them. And sometimes it means your life isn’t exactly the way you want it to be,” he notes, and this is all true. As for working for a boss you don’t like: “You try to minimize that stuff and be the best person you can be. But you set your priorities, and it’s the way life is. I wonder if your friend Alex knew that.” Just so; Alex was a tortured idealist who turned down a fellowship that seemed to be tied to the military-industrial complex, and as a result he got drafted and had a wayward life of odd jobs, all beneath him. At one point he even toiled as a social worker in 1978 Boston. It’s a wonder he didn’t kill himself back then.

Richard understands how Sixties idealism wound up being a kind of lingering afterburn that made everybody itchy and unhappy. He has more of a Greatest Generation understanding that life is about tradeoffs: “But the thing is, nobody said it was gonna be fun. At least nobody said it to me.” The former student revolutionaries around him sit in stunned silence: Of course life is supposed to be fun! And romantic and irresponsible and hedonistic and free of commitment. Except the movie we are watching is a 100-minute lesson in why none of that works.

 

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