Picks and Pans Review: The Big Chill

UPDATED 10/03/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/03/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, borrowing from comic books, made high camp hoot out of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. Borrowing from 1940s crime dramas like Double Indemnity, he wrote and directed 1981's Body Heat. Now, borrowing the basic theme of '60s-activists-adrift-in-the-'80s from John Sayles' lowbudget Return of the Secaucus Seven, Kasdan has co-written (with Barbara Benedek) and directed The Big Chill. Though it's intelligent, quickwitted and slickly produced, there's no escaping the ponderous philosophizing that keeps spoiling the fun. A group of seven old friends reunite for the funeral of Alex, one of their pals, who has committed suicide. Chilled by this intimation of their own mortality, each begins to question his or her life. Kevin Kline, eschewing protest, has become a running-shoe magnate; his wife, Glenn Close, is a successful doctor, JoBeth Williams has sold out for security as the wife of an ad man; Mary Kay Place is a lawyer who no longer defends the poor; ex-radical Tom Berenger has parlayed his looks into a starring role in a Magnum P.I.-type TV series; Jeff Goldblum has stopped writing political tracts to work for PEOPLE magazine, and William Hurt, a disillusioned and impotent Vietnam vet, has stopped doing anything but drugs. The acting ranges from first-rate (Hurt) to fatuous (Meg Tilly, as Alex's young girlfriend). Goldblum gets the most laughs, but Berenger goes deeper by providing his TV hunk with a surprising measure of dignity. While the women's roles are conceived on more conventional lines, Close (so fine as the mother in The World According to Garp) is ravishing. Sadly, Kasdan sets forth these characters with a patronizing patness. Alex, who is never seen, becomes the most interesting by default. He represents the spirit of the '60s, as does the superb soundtrack (Stones, Three Dog Night, Marvin Gaye) that Kasdan uses like an open faucet of nostalgia. He also uses cheap TV movie plot devices, like Place's beat-the-biological-clock search for insemination. Too bad. Because it's really the talk, when it's simple and direct (plus the little shocks of recognition), that makes The Big Chill the closest-to-the-bone movie of the year for the baby-boom generation. (R)

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