The Big Chill and the quarter-life crisis film.

How The Big Chill Invented the Quarter-Life Crisis Movie

How The Big Chill Invented the Quarter-Life Crisis Movie

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July 29 2014 2:23 PM

“We’re Not Leaving. We’re Never Leaving.”

The Big Chill and the enduring power of quarter-life crisis movies.

The Big Chill.
The Big Chill.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures Corp.

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, Criterion Collection.

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?