"The Big Chill," which appears to be a big-time variation on John Sayles' "Return of the Secaucus Seven" at the outset, ends up as a drowsy echo of Alan Alda's "The Four Seasons."
There may be an exploitable satiric idea embedded within this process, although writer-director Lawrence Kasdan neglects to tumble to it; as it ages, or mellows, to use the more appropriate term, the college generation of the '60s mirrored so sharply in "Secaucus Seven" and so fuzzily in "The Big Chill" could end up producing an inordinate share of pseudo-sensitive upper-middle-class chuckleheads, like the older group celebrated in "The Four Seasons." If anything, Kasdan's movie degenerates into an even cozier, smirkier toast to the communal complacency of an unimpressive, socially privileged circle of friends.
Seven close friends from college days at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s are reunited in Beaufort, S.C., for the funeral of an eighth friend, called Alex Marshall, who has committed suicide. To make things messier, he took his life while residing on the estate of the married couple who play host to the mourners at their spacious, handsome lakefront manor house--Kevin Kline as Harold, who's made a bundle running a chain of running-shoe stores, and Glenn Close as his wife Sarah, a doctor whose sorrow is supposedly complicated by the fact that she once had an adulterous fling with the deceased.
Their guests are Jeff Goldblum as Michael, the wiseacre Jew from People; Tom Berenger as Sam, a popular TV actor (sort of the short guy's Magnum, P.I.) who feels endearingly sheepish about his success; William Hurt as Nick, a "haunted" Vietnam vet who appears to be primed for some kind of tendentious explosion, since he's sexually impotent and peddles drugs for a living; Mary Kay Place as Meg, a lawyer who's itching to get pregnant before the biological clock ticks away another ovulation; and Jobeth Williams as Karen, a dissatisfied housewife accompanied by the straight-arrow spouse who evidently bores her (Don Galloway as Richard, a complete outsider who probably has more integrity than the insiders) but who is intent on consummating a lingering lust for sex symbol Sam. There's a second outsider the insiders tend to dote upon--Meg Tilly as Chloe, the late Alex's kid consort, who doesn't seem all at home upstairs but evidently represents an uncomplicated state of grace, perhaps because she looks so great when bending her supple body into gymnastic contortions.
Kasdan obviously envisions "The Big Chill" as something more profound than an exercise in snappy postcollegiate repartee; he wants the smart talk to be enjoyable and disarming but not to obscure authentic depths of feeling and shared experience that ultimately reaffirm abiding bonds of friendship. But he can't seem to authenticate those depths and bonds.
Kasdan is too adept to make an unpresentable movie: "The Big Chill" looks fashionably attractive, flows smoothly and sustains a professionally glib, polished style of verbal wit that works tolerably well as long as you don't expect the characters to transcend superficiality. Jeff Goldblum's character more or less embodies the glibness: he's a People magazine reporter who specializes in sarcastic jokes about his employer.
Assuming they get roles more consequential than the trivialized darlings created for them here, actors like Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Kline and William Hurt and actresses like Jobeth Williams, Glenn Close, Mary Kay Place and Meg Tilly should increase the sum of moviegoing satisfaction throughout the decade.
The mystery that reunites this group in perplexed sorrow--what made their friend Alex despair of life--is never adequately discussed, let alone resolved. The get-together evolves into a monotonous cycle of platitudinous after-dinner musings interrupted by sex comedy bulletins updating Meg's search for a sperm donor and Karen's designs on Sam, who also happens to be Meg's first choice. Neither of these entanglements is calculated to jolt the scenario out of its beamish trance, and I found the cutely incestuous "solution" to Meg's needs at once dumb and offensive. Although introduced as the loose cannon on board, Hurt's hurting vet proves a dud attempt at a provocative or relevantly wounded generational spokesman. When he's fixed up with Chloe, it seems a perfect match of empty vessels.
After a few days' shmooz in this comfortably shallow company, the thought occcurs to you that sheer boredom may have caused Alex to check out. During an awkwardly staged memorial service, where Kasdan can't master the proper modulation from grim-faced grief to incongruous humor, Harold blunders through a eulogy that contains two intriguing hints: "Alex drew us all together at the beginning" and "There was something about Alex that was too good for this world." The latter observation defies corroboration, not that Kasdan makes much of an effort to supply it, but there may be something to the former. If Alex was the catalyst of the group, his absence would explain the inability of the survivors to reactivate an absorbing chemistry.
Unlike the youngish old friends in "Secaucus Seven," the Kasdan crowd seems to have done pretty well for itself professionally and financially. Sam and Harold have a defensively facetious exchange about their prosperity: "Who'd have thought we'd make so much bread?" "Yeah, good thing it doesn't mean anything to us." If anything, Kasdan seems to be soliciting reassurance on this issue more than the general theme of friendship as a bittersweet refuge and support, which was expressed far more eloquently in the '70s by Mary Tyler Moore's comedy series and the movies of Claude Sautet.
Ultimately, "The Big Chill" is contrived to flatter and excuse the social and moral complacency of people who have good reason to feel foolish and perhaps shameful about the way they mistook themselves for revolutionaries while members of a fundamentally privileged and grotesquely overrated college generation.