This month, the scrupulously curated Criterion Collection released a new transfer of Robert Bresson’s balletic crime drama Pickpocket as well as a new American edition of the acclaimed Scandinavian noir Insomnia. Conspicuously nestled in the midst of these highbrow titles is The Big Chill, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 dramedy about the very serious #problems of white people in their early-30s. Why is this film receiving the full Criterion treatment—pristine Blu-ray transfer, new cast and filmmaker interviews, even a critical appreciation by Lena Dunham, of all people? The Big Chill is easy to dismiss as boomer nostalgia, but in fact the film—with its rousingly nostalgic soundtrack, its attractively lived-in ensemble, its glib relationship to trauma, its bottled-up aesthetic—invented the modern quarter-life crisis film we know so well.
After spending a childhood watching and rewatching the film on VHS with my mother—a rough contemporary of the film’s characters and, perhaps most importantly, a devoted Kevin Kline fan—I truly love The Big Chill. But, over the years, it’s become hard to acknowledge such a feeling in public without either offering an apology or mounting a defense. Kasdan’s film—with its slap-on-the-wrist critique of unexamined privilege, its nostalgic weaponization of the Motown catalogue, and the lurid spectacle of Kline in thigh-baring jogging shorts—has been held up as a symbol of the yuppification of ’80s America. And while too mild to be a real piece of propaganda for Reagan-era mammon worship, The Big Chill has survived as a reminder of all that was embarrassing, if not overtly sinister, about those years.
But The Big Chill also has a terrific cast, including perhaps the Goldblumiest of Jeff Goldblum’s early performances. John Bailey’s cinematography makes rural South Carolina’s misty fields and forests absurdly pretty. Kasdan and Barbara Benedek’s sharp screenplay is filled with compulsively quotable, if occasionally on-the-nose, one-liners. And the film offers an unusually perceptive and detail-oriented depiction of the way empty time is spent among friends. It is, for whatever else it may be accused of, a funny, perceptive movie about how people and friendships age.
The Big Chill, in fact, for all its squareness, has shaped the way filmmakers of the past 30 years tell us stories about growing older and feeling weird about it. Lena Dunham’s essay included with the new release is called “These Are Your Parents”; the title refers to the way that, from the vantage of 2014, the film acts as a kind of time machine, enabling people of her generation to see the way that people of their parents’ generation saw themselves. But the essay might just as well refer to artistic parentage. Dunham’s always been overt about acknowledging progenitors, like Hal Ashby, Woody Allen, Claudia Weill, and Nora Ephron. Lawrence Kasdan and screenwriter Barbara Benedek are Lena Dunham’s parents, too. The current queen of the quarter-life crisis owes a lot to those two.
If the midlife crisis is an event that forces adults in their 40s and 50s to recognize their own mortality, to feel trapped in the poured concrete of a stable life, then we can think about this crisis as one of endings. How soon will it all come to a close? What have I accomplished in all this time? Will this be all I have to show for my life when death finally knocks on the door of my station wagon? The quarter-life crisis, on the other hand, occurs during the 20s and early-30s, and is therefore defined by an anxiety about beginnings. Is this what the world I’ve idealized is really like? Where is the time to hook up, to be in a band, to live unemployed in Brooklyn before I become an adult? Dunham, describing the characters in Kasdan’s film, echoes the notorious words of Hannah Horvath from her own epic poem on this subject: “They are trying to remember who they were and become who they will be.” But who will they be, and why aren’t they already?
The genre of the quarter-life crisis film began in earnest with Mike Nichols’ The Graduate in 1967. That film established both a set of guiding questions—What did I just do for four years? What is my purpose? What is “The Real World”?—and a set of narrative structures for films about post-graduate malaise for years to come. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock became the face of the quarter-life crisis. But in 1983, Kasdan and Benedek suggested an alternate form. (John Sayles did much the same thing in 1980’s Return of the Secaucus 7, though that film had nowhere near the popular resonance.) Instead of accessing the quarter-life crisis through the exploits of a solitary protagonist bumbling and fondling his way up against the limitations society had set for him, this film focused on relationships. The innovation of The Big Chill was to decenter the narrative perspective of this type of story. By beginning the film with the suicide of a once-promising young man, Kasdan and Benedek were, in effect, killing off Benjamin Braddock.
What if, after that famous bus ride, Braddock spends 15 years meandering, working a series of dead-end jobs, “wasting” his talents, and then kills himself in the bathtub of a country house? What’s it like for his college friends? After the famous opening credits sequence—juxtaposing shots of the individual friends reacting to their friend’s death with disembodied close-ups of his corpse, all over the strains of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”—much of The Big Chill is indeed about how that suicide affects me. Numerous characters talk about how terrible they feel, they have conversations about what is or isn’t an appropriate way to talk about this tragedy, and Goldblum’s character even pitches a story about it to People. There’s no world outside except for the cold one that’s asking these people to compromise, no relationships except for those resurrected or rekindled inside this one house. (It’s worth noting, as Clayton Dillard has recently, that that house is a plantation house.) The film is about the struggles of self-centered people existing in a community.
We can hear the same dull buzz of sex, friendship, and time in brilliant post-mumblecore films like Your Sister’s Sister and Drinking Buddies. The awkward negotiations and confusions that anchor those films existed already in the bed-hopping comic entanglements of The Big Chill. Whit Stillman’s urbane and insufferable Metropolitan transposed the legitimate, if lower-case, anxieties of these yuppies onto the lives of a group of wealthy teens in Manhattan. We see variations of the film’s Motown funeral vibe in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And we see the film’s maelstrom of sex, disappointment, and resentment resurface in The Royal Tenenbaums’ incestuous riff on unrequited love and broken relationships. Tyler Perry, whose Why Did I Get Married? feels almost like a remake of Kasdan’s film with an all-black cast, has built an empire with ensemble comedies about the reunions of well-off thirtysomethings. Judd Apatow certainly didn’t invent the idea of having a group of best friends sit in a living room, do drugs, drop one-liners, and ponder what it means to be an adult. Even Friends, with its will-they-or-won’t-they, friends-and-lovers assemblage of buddies who never really break free of their tight social group, owes a debt to The Big Chill. Could David Schwimmer even exist without Jeff Goldblum?
In his review, Roger Ebert wrote, tellingly, that the film “has all the right moves. … But there’s no payoff, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. I thought at first that was a weakness of the movie. There also is the possibility that it’s the movie’s message.” If the quarter-life crisis film is about asking a particular set of existential questions, about the narcissism that results from a tunnel-vision search for answers, then it’s also about the frustration that results when answers are nowhere to be found. In The Graduate, this was an inner crisis, but in The Big Chill, this crisis became shared, articulate, visible. It made the crisis more open to ridicule and scorn, but it also allowed for the possibility of generosity and empathy. The temptation is to see The Big Chill as a drama of privileged poses or a comedy of inside jokes, but we are surrounded, in popular culture, with increasingly diverse ethnographies of small groups and epics of small stakes. The Big Chill can’t and doesn’t speak for everybody, but isn’t that the point?