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On Sept. 30, 1983, Columbia unveiled the R-rated Lawrence Kasdan ensemble drama The Big Chill in theaters. The film went on to be nominated for three Oscars at the 56th Academy Awards, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
For anyone who remembers favorably Lawrence Kasdan’s visually exciting, richly textured Body Heat, The Big Chill can only be a keen disappointment. Although clearly intended as a searching commentary on the change in values between the idealism of the ’60s and the crass materialism of today, the screenplay (by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek) keeps losing its way amid the romantic liaisons of its eight protagonists, few of who are clearly defined. (In fact, it took me a good half hour simply to figure out who was related to whom, and how. It’s one thing for the writer-director to understand these relationships, quite another to convey them clearly to his audience.)
Nor does the fragmented style of the film help. Scenes no sooner seem to get started than Kasdan cuts abruptly to another part of the forest, sometimes returning to what he had so recently abandoned, sometimes not. One soon gets the impression that he cares less for his characters than for their interweaving stories. They are walking case histories paraded before one-way mirrors by a particularly cold and insensitive social anthropologist.
And a blasting score culled from Motown oldies, no doubt intended as a counterpoint to the complacent ’80s, proves not only intrusive, but invariably shatters the mood of whatever is on the screen, even to the point of blotting out dialogue with the screaming lyrics.
Perhaps if Kasdan saw some humor in his characters (as John Sayles did in The Return of the Secaucus 7, which this film often startlingly resembles), these techniques might have been acceptable. Instead, he is insistently head-on, reducing each of his people to a simplified cartoon figure — the successful businessman, the popular TV star, the disillusioned lady lawyer, the frustrated housewife, the opportunistic journalist, etc. And no matter how desperately his cast of excellent young actors, headed by Tom Berenger, Glenn Close and William Hurt, tries to flesh them out in individual scenes (there’s a particularly affecting early morning jogging sequence with Hurt and Kevin Kline, for example), the characters keep returning to ground zero. The writers have given them nowhere to go.
It’s unfortunately symptomatic of the invention in this film that all the characters have been assembled by the suicide of one of their number, a college chum who had remained nonconformist to the end. His unexpected demise jolts them momentarily into recollections of the idealistic youth. But only momentarily. The journalist (Jeff Goldblum) decides to hang around because he smells a juicy scandal developing around TV star Berenger and bored housewife JoBeth Williams, or perhaps something savory in the relationship between his late friend and his sexy mistress (Meg Tilly). Mary Kay Place stays on because she wants one of her chums, no matter which, to give her a baby. William Hurt, the last lingering blossom of the flower children, lingers because he has no place else to go.
And so what might have been a meaningful exploration of the changes wrought by 20 years of abrasive reality is diverted, essentially, into who’s going to wind up sleeping with whom. Presumably, it’s a happy ending. At least, everybody gets to sleep with somebody. But in the process, a picture that clearly aspires for more ends up with considerably less. It’s a Secaucus 7 in reverse.
Handsomely photographed by John Bailey, jaggedly edited by Carol Littleton (presumably at Kasdan’s insistence), this Columbia release has been chose to close the prestigious New York Film Festival. I can’t imagine why. — Arthur Knight, originally published on Sept. 9, 1983
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