The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Big Chill

It's one of those things. Good movie (some would say great to classic), impressive cast, a loyal following and positively reviewed almost across the board. Then.....then, you watch it, and it just isn't very good. All in the eye of the beholder, huh? Maybe I missed something, maybe I just didn't think it was very good, but here's 1983's The Big Chill.

A group of friends who attended the University of Michigan in the late 1960s have drifted apart over the years, some starting families, others pursuing careers, some doing both. They're about to be brought back together under far from ideal conditions. One of the friends, Alex, has committed suicide, the rest of the group all returning to Alex's hometown in Michigan for the funeral and service. For some, they see friends they haven't seen or talked to in years, but the relationships are still there, the bonds, the friendships, rivalries, all coming back in a flash. Staying together in one house over the weekend, the group of friends starts to see that everything isn't so rosy. Sex, drugs, music and some good old-fashioned bonding among longtime friends. Let the craziness and kookiness commence.

This was the first time I saw director Lawrence Kasdan's film that's earned a reputation over the years as one of the seminal movies of the 1980s. This is a story about a generation that grew up with Vietnam, hippies, Watergate, the drug culture, one of the most turbulent times in American history. Now in the early 1980s, they're all grown-up, their past craziness just that, a thing of the past. They have jobs, careers, family (for the most part). It is a story ripe with potential, one house serving as the setting for almost the entire movie. The soundtrack is pretty epic featuring everyone from The Rolling Stones to Marvin Gaye, The Temptations to Procol Harum and a whole lot in between. Style, interesting premise, lots of talent in the cast....and, yeah, I didn't really like it much at all.

For starters, let's talk about the very talented cast. There's Kevin Kline and Glenn Close as a married couple with a checkered past that has been left in the past, Tom Berenger as the big celebrity, the TV star with a hugely successful Magnum P.I.-esque show, JoBeth Williams his married crush who's having some marital struggles, Jeff Goldblum as a goofy journalist, William Hurt as the drug-addled Vietnam vet who struggles with...well, everything, Mary Kay Place as the single 30-something who has her biological clock ticking loudly, and then Meg Tilly as Alex's girlfriend who he'd been seeing for about three months. Some impressive names, but my goodness, I just didn't like these characters. We're thrown into the story without much in the way of introduction or background so I struggled immediately to keep up with what was going on. Yes, we learn some things with each passing dialogue scene (and there's plenty), but the early struggles proved to be the movie's doom.

Watching this movie in 2014, it's easy to see the influence 'Chill' has had on countless films and television shows in the 30 years since its release. Any movie about old friends reuniting has to at least tip its cap to this 1983 film in one way or another. As for my next statement, I say this as someone who grew up in a generation that complains about just about everything. But really, has there ever been a movie with so many whiny individuals? Is life just so awful? As they reunite, catch up after years apart, this group of friends proceeds to bitch and moan about how tough life is, how life didn't turn out how they thought it would, how things didn't develop as they thought they would. Boo-freaking-hoo. The entire second half of the movie plays like one big sob story. It helps to have some initial sympathy for these characters, but it's just never there. Wait, life is tough?!? Who knew? Get over yourself.

What was original in 1983 plays like cliched now. So through no fault of its own, 'Chill' was working against it immediately. At one point, the crew dances together as they clean up and do the dishes after dinner. Woo-hoo! Bonding! If it was meant to show them bonding again, we get it, but it feels forced and goofy. The story up until this point is based in some sort of reality, but the last 30 minutes or so derails with some just odd decisions. We're talking painfully awkward decisions that I just don't see a lot of real-life friends making. By the end though, I was beyond worrying too much. I went in with modest expectations but came away very, very disappointed. Maybe in five or six years when I'm in my mid-30s, I'll appreciate it more. For now, I just don't get the appeal.

The Big Chill (1983): * 1/2 /****


  1. Wow. One and a half! I felt only the story with Mary Kay Place deserved that rating. I also felt the characters didn't have backstories to show how they turned out summed up their past. And personally, I felt this movie was made "With a good, clean style, lean, economical, just the right touch of ideological fanaticism." But subjectivity is king.

  2. It just didn't resonate with me, James. I was looking forward to this one, wanted to like it, and I just didn't.