Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Seven


#7 — The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983)

All through this process, I’ve deliberately avoided treating the countdown too much like a countdown. What I mean by that is that I didn’t want to go too hung up on where the films ranked, particularly in consideration of where I probably would have placed the individuals titles had I gone through this process, say, over the course of 1990 when my opinions hadn’t yet gone through a couple decades or marination and adjustment. The progression of any list of this nature is going to be fairly arbitrary, anyway, so why get too hung up on noting why certain films ranks above others or the minor degrees to which they may have risen or dropped in my estimation? That noted, I absolutely can’t write about The Big Chill without addressing this point: had I undertaken this process in 1990–and at any other point for many, many years after that–The Big Chill would have been my choice for the number one spot.

I’m not entirely sure why I related to it so much when I first saw it. I was fourteen years old at the time, nowhere near the age of the baby boomers in the movie who were fretting about the rushing onset of middle age and considering all the compromises they’d made, and continued to make, as they edged further and further away from their idealistic youth. In its depiction of college compatriots reuniting for the first time in many years–a reunion inspired by the tragic suicide of one of their number, a situation that inspires new thoughts of how former feelings of grave invincibility have given way to worries over mortality and personal legacy–writer-director Lawrence Kasdan was seemingly trying to tap into universal feelings held by his generation at that point in time, simply by honing in on a group of well-drawn characters moving through a handful of days that, in the spirit of rekindled camaraderie, allowed them to truly, honestly, painfully be themselves again. I hadn’t personally experienced anything like that, nor had I gone through any of the travails I saw onscreen. Yet it spoke to me somehow. Kasdan’s script, written with Barbara Benedek, was maybe what I thought adulthood was supposed to be, what I thought I was charged with moving towards as I matured.

Beyond that, I thought The Big Chill was funny and astute, moving and buoyant. This was one of those movies that I watched so often and with such attention that the lines of dialogue came as readily to me as my own thoughts. I could quote entire dinner scenes or the battering banter when the assembled friends were watching a college football game (“Don’t heckle Bo, he’s got enough pressure”) or the opening credits to J.T. Lancer, the TV drama in the style of Magnum P.I. or Matt Houston that one of them stars in (“Does the suit come with the machete?”). When the radio played one of the oldies that peppered the soundtrack, I could immediately see the precise way the accompanying film scene played out. To this day, I can’t hear “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” without seeing Kevin Kline’s Harold kick his leg in the air in a rejuvenated joy in the music that once helped define him. I can see him gratefully kiss the album jacket too. Hell, there was probably a time when I could have drawn a serviceable architectural sketch of the house where most of the film takes place.

I’ll admit that there’s a nostalgic part of me that’s a little sad that I can no longer justify putting this film atop the list, even though that single digit in the graphic up there testifies to the fact that I still maintain it’s a damn fine film. The film hasn’t really diminished in my eyes. Rather, I prefer to think that, as the years have passed a sort of equilibrium with the film has set in, a tempering of passion to allow for a more level-headed appraisal of its merits. Fittingly, I even experience my own little yearly Big Chill sort of college reunion every year, albeit with a larger crew and less eventful impetus (hell, I’m now older that the characters in the film), which provides its own adjustment of perspective. Like the people onscreen, I’ve grown and changed and reassessed and compromised. I’m not the same person I was, which is bittersweet but also, in an unexpected way, liberating and inspiring. I can look at the past differently and be all right with fresh conclusions about my old theories and judgments. Yeah, seven seems about right.

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