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Film / The Big Chill

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"It's a cold world out there. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting a little frosty myself."

The Big Chill is a 1983 dramedy film directed and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, featuring an Ensemble Cast that's a veritable Who's Who of prominent '80s actors, including Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, and JoBeth Williams.

A group of people who knew each other as college students and friends during the 1960s end up getting back together some 15 years later, after their friend Alex commits suicide. All of them had gone along their separate ways, but now have reason to look back and wonder where their idealism went — they were campus liberals who, in The '80s, have basically become yuppie establishment types suffering the angst of entering middle age in the Reagan era, lampshading the fact that, as one of them puts it, "No one had a cushier berth than we did". But along the way they renew their friendships, and sometimes even more, as they try to understand why Alex, with all of his potential, worked at menial jobs and then, for no apparent reason, decided to kill himself.


This film provides examples of:

  • Bait-and-Switch: Nick is about to confide in Meg about what happened to him in Vietnam. A moment later, the scene cuts to the living room, where everyone hears a bloodcurdling scream - from Meg finding a bat in the attic.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: When Sam is driving Chloe and Michael to the wake, they're both worried about how quiet Chloe is:
    Sam: You alright?
    Chloe: Yeah. I'm a little disappointed, though. I wanted to ride up there.
    Sam: Yeah. (Michael nods as well)
    Chloe: I always wanted to ride in a limo. (Michael and Sam look at each other)
  • Because I Said So: Sarah says this on the phone to her daughter, and when she hangs up, she immediately tells Meg she can't believe she said that.
  • Better Than Sex: According to Michael, rationalizations.
    Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex.
    Michael: Yeah? You ever gone a week without a rationalization?
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  • Bookends: The movie opens with Harold and Sarah's son singing the Three Dog Night song "Joy to the World" (more commonly known as "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog") and ends with the actual song being played.
  • …But I Play One on TV: In-Universe; in the opening credits of J.T. Lancer, we see Sam taking a running jump into his convertible, and landing perfectly in the seat. When the cop who pulls Nick over (see Corrupt Hick below) recognizes Sam, he offers to let the charge he's got against Nick slide if Sam will demonstrate that stunt for him; to everyone else's consternation, Sam agrees to do it. Naturally, since Sam is an actor and not a stuntman, he trips on the car door, falls, and hurts his arm (though not too badly).
  • Chekhov's Gun: Sarah's bathrobe.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Chloe.
  • Corrupt Hick: Played with and subverted; Nick thinks the cop who pulled him over because he looks like a "Yankee drug dealer" is this, but he's willing to let the whole thing go when he recognizes Sam and asks him to recreate a stunt from his TV show (it doesn't go well). And then later, an angry Harold explains to Nick the cop had actually stopped the house from being broken into, and is a nice guy.
    • Also, Nick is a "Yankee drug dealer".
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Implied by Chloe's admission to calling Nick's radio show when she was younger, worried that she was a pervert, and his advising her that it was okay as long as she kept up with her homework.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mostly Michael and Nick, though Harold has his moments.
    Meg: The last time I spoke with Alex, we had a fight. I yelled at him.
    Nick: That's probably why he killed himself.
  • Expy: J.T. Lancer, the character Sam plays on his TV show, seems a lot like Thomas Magnum, complete with Cool Car and mustache.
  • "Everybody Laughs" Ending: After Michael's closing line:
    Michael: You see, Sarah, Harold, we took a secret vote. We're not leaving. We're never leaving.
  • False Reassurance: Played for Laughs.
    Sam: In Hollywood, I don't know who to trust. I don't know who likes me or why they even do like me.
    Harold: Well, you don't have that problem here. (Sam smiles) You know I don't like you.
    Michael: Me neither.
    Meg: Ditto.
    Harold: So relax.
    Sam: Assholes!
  • Good People Have Good Sex: Many of the characters ( all but Michael) end up having sex with each other. Meg has considered getting pregnant, so Sarah decides to lend Meg her husband, Harold, for this purpose (and also to balance the books for own infidelity years earlier).
  • Gaussian Girl: To make sure we know that Karen is gorgeous, she's almost always in soft focus. Because JoBeth Williams needs so much help with that.
  • Innocently Insensitive: At the wake, Meg and Sarah are watching Chloe laughing with others, and Sarah, clearly disapproving, comments, "His (Alex's) funeral, and she's stoned", unaware Meg is stoned, thanks to Nick.
  • Insult to Rocks: When Sam mentions he plays video games to relax, Meg can't believe he would do something that moronic, to which Harold replies, "Hey; don't knock morons."
  • It's Quiet… Too Quiet: Nick says this almost word for word when he, Harold and Sam are trying to chase the bat out of the attic.
  • The Last of These Is Not Like the Others: Chloe is the lone member of the main cast who was not part of the circle of friends at the University of Michigan in the 60s, being the younger girlfriend of the late Alex.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight:
    • Nick refers to having trouble performing, thanks to psychological trauma from his service.
    • Michael mentions that his former business partner was similarly affected after his wife left him for another woman.
  • Longing Look: Karen and Sam have quite a few of these towards each other.
  • MST: The others make fun of Sam's show this way, joking about the outlandish scenes in the opening credits.
  • Nothing but Hits: Unbuilt Trope / Trope Codifier: The soundtrack contains literally nothing but huge hits from the '60s, including numerous Motown tunes and other favorites such as Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising". However unlike most movies that would go on to use this trope, it's not actually set in that era but in the 1980s, and the songs reflect the tastes of a set of characters who by and large are romanticizing their youths, so naturally they would be the bigger hits of the time.
  • Posthumous Character: Alex, whose suicide kicks off the plot.
  • Product Placement: When Harold gets sneakers for everyone through his company, the Nike and New Balance logos are clearly visible.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Nick went to Vietnam; the trauma is hinted to be responsible for his use of pills, among other side effects.
  • Shout-Out: As Harold goes up towards the attic to slay a bat that's flown in, he hums the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote.
  • Shower of Angst: Sarah has one the evening after the funeral, likely inspired by both Alex's suicide and by her guilt over having an affair with Alex years before.
  • Start to Corpse
  • Starts with a Suicide: Alex's, before the opening credits. His funeral is what draws the whole cast together again after nearly 20 years.
  • Stealth Pun: Harold's shoe shop is named "Running Dog". Doubles as a Take That Me, as it's Harold poking fun at his own capitalist aspirations.
  • Thanksgiving Episode: Not stated definitively, but hinted at by the turkey dinner they sit down to, plus the group obsession with watching the Michigan football game.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Invoked by Harold in his eulogy for Alex.
  • Too Much Information: When Nick and Sam are talking about their history with Karen:
    Nick: In the old days, I wasn't emotionally equipped to satisfy her. Now, as we all know, the equipment doesn't work at all.
    Sam: Why do we have to talk about that?
  • Trade Your Passion for Glory: None of the characters are living their youthful values, having cashed them in for steady, well-paying jobs. A fair bit of the film's angst is derived from this, especially when the characters consider themselves next to the late Alex, who turned down a prestigious research appointment that he felt would compromise his principles.
  • Unbuilt Trope: So: a film about a bunch of grown-up Baby Boomers looking back on their youth and activism in The '60s, pondering how much better things were back then, all set to a soundtrack of awesome period music... and the entire dramatic thrust of the film is about how they completely sold out their ideals, which were hollow to begin with and ultimately ruined their lives, and that they're all clinging to the past. It sounds like something a disgruntled younger filmmaker might make to dismantle everything that their parents' generation stood for...but this is the film that unintentionally codified "Baby Boomer nostalgia" as a creative industry! Director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (then 34 years old, making him, if anything, one of the older Baby Boomers) was making a movie about his own generation, not that of his parents.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Karen and Sam at least at first.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: A milder version here, but Sam does harbor resentment towards Michael because of an article Michael wrote that slammed him.
  • White-Collar Crime: Harold mentions an offer he received for his company, and the ensuing rise in share prices, to Nick, in an attempt to help him find "a new line of work" (i.e. anything other than drug dealing).