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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 '60s 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, since they're former campus radicals 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:
    • Richard and Nick have a conversation while the latter is underneath his car, apparently doing repair work. He then pulls out a small square packet that had been taped behind the bumper, presumably containing drugs.
    • 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 – who's found 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?
  • 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.
    • The movie also opens with the death of Alex, a brilliant scholar but emotionally troubled, who had spent his post-college life drifting from job to job before trying to fix up an old house with Chloe. The film ends with Nick, Alex's similarly troubled and directionless former roommate, choosing to pick up where Alex left off and fix up the old house with Chloe.
  • …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 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.
  • Comforting the Widow: Michael repeatedly tries (and fails) to get close to Chloe. Harold and Nick voice their disapproval. Later inverted when Chloe makes advances on Nick.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Meg's initial career path, which had her working as a public defender until she grew disillusioned over the deplorable things her clients were accused of - and often guilty of.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Chloe is implied to have this, with her not wanting to discuss her past and stating she had not met too many happy people in her life.
  • 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.
  • Defector from Decadence: Michael's The Michigan Daily article, about Alex turning down the Rutledge scholarship, depicts him as this. Alex was upset with the article, though it's unclear whether it was the article's slant or just its existence.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Discussed by the pastor delivering Alex's eulogy, who asks why simply being a good man and loving his fellow man wasn't enough to preserve Alex's hope.
  • Disco Dan: Harold refuses to have anything but 60s and 70s rock and pop music in the house, arguing "There is no other music".
  • 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!
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Michael is a strong contender for this, with Sarah voicing her disapproval at him staying the weekend right at the beginning, Sam resenting him for an unfavourable magazine article, and Meg seeing him as a last resort for fathering the child she hopes to have. Nick runs a close second thanks to his drug dealing and cynical outlook.
  • Funny Background Event: During the breakfast scene on Sunday, Chloe stands in the corner of the kitchen eating leftover spaghetti one strand at a time.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Sarah and Alex's fling five years before the events of the film is portrayed in a sympathetic light, as is her offer of Harold to father Meg's baby. Compare them with Michael, whose attempts to cheat on his girlfriend are met with disapproval by Harold and Nick, and who is regarded by the women in the house as a borderline Abhorrent Admirer. Zig-zagged with Sam and Karen, who are just out of/in unhappy marriages, but who clearly see each other as The One That Got Away.
  • 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.
  • Hidden Depths: While initially appearing to be a total Cloud Cuckoolander, Chloe is also deeply empathetic and is the only one to recognize that the penalty against the Michigan football team was justified.
  • Hypocrite: Nick faces more than a little disapproval for his work as a drug dealer, but everyone in the house dips into his stash over the course of the weekend.
  • 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."
  • Intimate Healing: It's implied that Chloe helped treat Nick's inability to perform, or at least helped him make his peace with it.
  • 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.
  • Jaded Washout:
    • Nick is this in spades, between his inability to stick with a job long term, his cynicism, his drug use (and dealing), and his Vietnam War-induced inability to perform sexually.
    • Averted with the late Alex, who, while fitting most of the characteristics of the trope, deliberately chose for reasons unknown to turn his back on his chosen academic field in favour of a string of random, unrewarding jobs.
  • 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.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Harold opens the attic window in an attempt to free the trapped bat, but two more fly in instead.
    Nick: Okay, now we got a fair fight!
  • Noodle Implements: The contents of everyone's suitcases as they unpack, but Michael takes the cake by unpacking several changes of underwear, a pile of condoms, and two harmonicas.
  • No Seatbelts: Played with. Seatbelts are shown in many car scenes, but seldom worn.
  • 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.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: In a roundabout way. Kevin Kline was reluctant to do the scene in which Harold and Meg have sex so she can conceive a child, feeling it was unrealistic. But he later said that after the movie's release several people told him they had been in the same situation.
  • Real Men Cook: Sam, who stars in a Rated M for Manly TV show, is shown cooking dinner along with the others. The dialogue suggests that it's a matter of opinion how good he is.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Nick looks set to be this for Chloe at the movie's end, especially with her stating that he reminds her of Alex when they visit the old house.
  • Right Behind Me: Sam and Nick discuss their romantic/sexual history with Karen before going into the kitchen, where, unknown to them, Karen's husband Richard is making a sandwich. It's left unclear whether he overheard them, but his almost immediate departure without Karen suggests he did.
  • Save Our Students: Michael's life plan as a student, which involved him going to Harlem to "teach those ghetto kids". Also applies to his girlfriend, who only appears in the opening credits and who indeed works as a teacher in Harlem.
  • Scenery Porn: The film makes the most of its coastal South Carolina setting, with both establishing shots and scenes focusing on the view outside the house.
  • Self-Abuse:
    • 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.
    • Also discussed by Harold, Sam, and Nick while jogging:
    Harold: I always thought masturbation was the ultimate act of self-absorption.
    Sam: Do you jerk off?
    Harold: Does a bear have fleas?
    Sam: No, no, "Does a bear shit in the woods?"
    Harold: Does a bear jerk off?
    Nick: You know, I shit in the woods, but I can't jerk off.
  • Sex Montage: The last evening at the house concludes in this, with Karen and Sam, Nick and Chloe, and Harold and Meg pairing off.
  • 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 him years before.
  • Start to Corpse: The late Alex appears on the funeral home table in the opening credits.
  • Stepford Smiler: Within 24 hours Karen goes from fawning over and sleeping with Sam while insisting she's getting a divorce to asking Sam to get her, her husband, and their kids into the studio where his show tapes.
  • 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 Self-Deprecation, 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. Also lampshaded by Sam and Harold, the most successful of the group:
    Sam: Who would've thought we'd both make so much bread? Two revolutionaries.
    Harold: Yeah. Good thing it's not important to us.
    Sam: Right.
  • 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.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Although not as distant as most examples of this trope, the group are not as close as they were during their college days, with some tension between Sam and Michael as mentioned above. Averted with Meg, who's still close enough to Harold and Sarah to buy gifts for their kids. Discussed by Nick, who points out that 15 years prior they all "knew each other for a short while" and doesn't believe in overemphasizing such a brief connection.
  • What's a Henway?: Chloe and Karen's conversation at the wake:
    Chloe: I found him.
    Karen: Oh God. It must have been awful.
    Chloe: It was. It was a real mess.
    Karen: So what are you going to do now?
    Chloe: Oh, we cleaned it up.
  • 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).