There's a moment in The Big Chill where Sam, a network television star, says to Harold, his buddy who's hit it big selling running shoes, “Who would of thought we’d make so much bread. Two revolutionaries.” While there’s nothing wrong with a wry smirk and a raised eyebrow between newly flush friends, their irony hits the wrong note. No one ever doubted that these former revolutionaries, well, Big Ten school undergrads, were interested in money. It’s the world-changing radical part that makes us titter, and it will be a continual self-deception for Sam, Harold, and their thirty-something-in-nineteen-eighty-something peers for the rest of their lives.
The feeble Baby Boomer mea culpa has long been, Hey, we fought hard for change, but when The Dream died — not our fault — we had to take care of Number One, because who else was going to? The reality, we know now, is that self-interest was the Boomer dream from the very start, and that they are a generation that is nothing if not intensely easy on itself.
Ian McDonald writes in Revolution in The Head, “To put it crudely, the children of the 1960s, so determined to do their own thing, became the adult voters of 1980s who were determined to own their own things, and so put leaders such as Reagan and Thatcher in power.” In revisiting the navel-gazing gang of The Big Chill, Lawrence Kasdan’s reunion picture that celebrates the 30th anniversary of its release next week, it’s clear that the immediate satisfaction of self-interest was not nearly enough. No, this only occasionally sufferable gang of frenemies have come to a very serious crossroads in their thirties: How do we continue to do whatever we want – usually involving sex and money – and still remain morally unscathed and superior?
See, the Boomers in The Big Chill cannot be tethered by societal structure and rule, or burdened with law and responsibility, or inconvenienced with ethics and appropriateness. These are just words and notions for people of a lower order that just don’t get it, man, because they weren’t there, man. No, the Boomers here are bound by something much deeper and more special. And you wouldn’t understand because you’re, well, not one of them.
The Big Chill brings an allegedly close-knit group of friends together, a decade or so after graduating from the University of Michigan, at the funeral of their most promising friend, Alex, who for only speculative reasons has committed suicide. But outside of lazy sentiment like “Alex was too good for this world,” and despite their formidable intellect, The Big Chill Posse comes up empty in identifying the exact cause of their friend’s demise.
We do know this: Alex’s life became so wretched and misdirected toward the end that he actually lowered himself to construction work, if you can believe it. For the public defender-turned-corporate litigator, the People magazine reporter, the TV heartthrob, the physician, the Vietnam vet/radio call-in psychologist, and the free-market capitalist who round out the film, things, well, do not get much worse than this. The funeral has given the group a rare opportunity, though, to come together, take a deep, weed-filled breath, and muse on rationalization, selling out, and behaving badly. But by weekend’s end the unspoken pact is that they will carry on doing those very things. Because it’s okay. Because they’re them.
The era in which this picture was entertaining — and it was — has long passed, and as impossible as it may seem the characters of The Big Chill were once considered aspirational. People attached themselves to the film’s individual personas as if they were Carrie Bradshaw and the girls from Sex in the City.
Today, though, The Big Chill is simply harrowing to look back on, as a direct philosophical line can be drawn from the entitlement of Kasdan’s characters all the way to the economic collapse under the Boomer administrations of Clinton and Bush. The same generation that was the recipient of the most sizable intergenerational transfer of wealth in our country’s history.
The film unintentionally but effectively accounts for the deceptions, self and otherwise, of a generation in their incubation period, and the ease in which Harold gives a heads-up to his down-and-outish pal, Nick, about his shoe company’s impending sale points to an attitudinal source of our meltdown just 20-plus years later. Like countless other Boomers it somehow eludes Harold that this is a crime, that it’s illegal, and that uninformed investors are going to lose out to his friend. Harold, though, thinks of it as forgivable and victimless because they’re the nice guys, for god’s sake, and that it’s for the greater good. The greater good being, of course, themselves.
Similarly, when they do psychotic things, it’s fine. Harold’s wife Sarah selflessly donates her husband’s seed — the old-fashioned way, mind you — to her baby-craving pal, Meg. And aside from this happening in real life somewhere around, oh, zero times, it’s less a gesture of generosity then it is of Sarah quelling guilt over her own earlier affair with Alex, in addition to some other amorphous hostilities. It’s Boomer fetish masquerading as wholesome friendship and the loving stare Glenn Close gives Kevin Kline the morning after insemination — because one time always does the trick — makes her turn as Alexandra in Fatal Attraction a few years later look like a glossy picture of mental health.
This may all seem innocent enough within the construct of a fictional film, but it betrays the singular recklessness and the complete absence of consideration of consequence that are signature traits of Sarah’s generation. We also know that her gesture is simply crazy because the characters in The Big Chill aren’t really friends at all. They know very little about each other, they don’t listen to each other and, outside of sexually, they’re not particularly interested in each other.
This obsession with self is the very soul of The Big Chill, and that of the collective spirit of their Boomer peers. If it feels good do it, right? More accurately, though, if it doesn’t feel good — austerity, hiccups in a marriage, attentive parenting, abiding by the Social Contract — don’t do it. Because remember, The Big Chillians are unique! When they’re committing white-collar crime it’s different. When they’re committing adultery it’s different. When they’re abandoning their children it’s different. When they’re hitting on their dead pal’s girlfriend at his funeral it’s different. You get the picture.
It’s different because they’re doing it, and because they’re already certain of their respectability and enlightenment — proven during their revolutionary period — all they have to do is narrow their eyes in introspection and wrestle with their lies and indiscretions. So they talk, and they talk, and they talk some more. But it's only talk. And once all the talking has ended, the sex has been had, the pot has been smoked, and the declaration of better intentions have been assured, the friends of The Big Chill can go right back to doing whatever they want. Which is okay. Because they’re really decent people. Honest.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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