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Viewer Guide: The Big Chill and Breakable You

July 17, 2020 | Richard Peña


This week’s classic is The Big Chill, a 1983 comedy drama directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

Making his directorial debut two years earlier with the neo-noir sensation Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan scored a major follow-up hit with The Big Chill, a seminal Baby Boomer tale of seven University of Michigan friends now in their mid-30’s, who find themselves reuniting at the funeral of their mutual friend Alex. As the group struggles to come terms with Alex’s unexplained suicide, they also wrestle with the fading dreams of their idealistic college years as they become increasingly mired in the limitations and conventionality of adulthood.

The unofficial reigning couple of the group are Harold and Sarah, played by Kevin Kline and Glenn Close, whose upscale life includes the gracious vacation home where the old friends congregate. William Hurt plays Nick, a cynical Vietnam vet and former radio host whose life has spiraled into aimlessness and too many drugs. JoBeth Williams plays Karen, a one-time writer now stifling in a safe but passionless suburban marriage. Jeff Goldblum plays Michael, a wisecracking journalist whose early promise has devolved into writing sappy human interest stories for People Magazine. Tom Berenger plays Sam, an actor who finds his empty Hollywood “success” as a primetime TV detective more and more embarrassing. And Mary Kay Place plays Meg, a lawyer who has abandoned defending the underprivileged for the lucrative rewards of real estate, and whose biological clock ticks louder with each passing day. Completing the unexpected reunion is Chloe, Alex’s much younger new girlfriend played by Meg Tilly, whose seemingly blank response to Alex’s tragic death leaves the group perplexed as well as even more conscious of their advancing age.

With its witty, insightful and at times poignant snapshot of the melancholy aftermath of 60s idealism, The Big Chill very much captured a mid-80s zeitgeist of mixed emotions, dramatizing the rueful naïveté of a generation that truly believed it was going to change the world. Working from a script co-written by Barbara Benedek, director Lawrence Kasdan put a Hollywood polish on the bittersweet 60s reunion genre pioneered by indie director John Sayles in 1979 with The Return of the Secaucus 7; furthermore, The Big Chill showcased the dramatic potential of an ensemble character narrative that would later form the basis of the similarly-themed TV series “thirtysomething” in 1987.

A box office hit nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Glenn Close, the film was also a major boon for Motown Records, which by the early 80s had been suffering dwindling record sales due to the defection of several of its original stars to other labels. With the soundtrack album ultimately certified six-times platinum, the film popularized the technique of utilizing nostalgic pop hits as dramatic counterpoint to narrative action, which rapidly became standard practice in countless movies, TV series and commercials.


Breakable You (2018)

This week’s indie is Breakable You, a 2018 drama directed by Andrew Wagner.

Tony Shalhoub stars as Adam Weller, a New York City playwright who at first glance seems to have all the trappings of a successful career. But a closer look quickly reveals that Tony has weathered some major mid-life struggles, including the dissolution of his 35-year marriage to Eleanor, a Manhattan therapist played by Holly Hunter. While the two still talk, it’s not exactly what you could call a cordial relationship. And Tony’s daughter Maud, played by Cristin Milioti, has turned out to be a handful due to her recurring bouts with clinical depression. But the biggest concern for the distinctly self-centered Tony is the gnawing fear that his greatest playwriting achievements may already be behind him. With his recent plays flopping with critics and ignored by audiences, Tony’s creative inspiration is at a low ebb, which makes the interview request he’s received to discuss the acclaimed work of his now deceased best friend—and former playwriting rival—all the more irritating. But when his friend’s widow uncovers the manuscript of her dead husband’s play long thought to have been destroyed, Tony is steadily drawn into Faustian bargain with himself to revive his dwindling prospects.

Also featured in supporting roles are Alfred Molina as Tony’s brother, Omar Metwally as Maud’s reluctant romantic interest and Brooke Adams as the widow of Tony’s old friend.

Based on the 2006 novel by Brian Morton, Breakable You has a clear affinity with the universe of Woody Allen in its portrait of a rarefied milieu of New York City intelligentsia. But it also evokes the cinematic universe of Alfred Hitchcock, depicting a protagonist who’s confronted with an ethical choice, only to eventually succumb to his own weakness, bringing to mind Hitchcock classics like Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder. Yet like the scenario dramatized in Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors: if  no one other than your daughter, your ex-wife and presumably God “knows” about your crime, are there really no moral repercussions in the end? Director Andrew Wagner had previously adapted another Brian Morton novel for the movies in 2007, Starting Out in the Evening, which also focused on a blocked writer, featuring Frank Langella as an aging novelist struggling against fading inspiration.

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