Viewer Guide: The Big Chill and Glassland

July 12, 2019 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host 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.


This week’s indie is Glassland, a 2014 drama directed by Gerard Barrett.

Set in contemporary Dublin, Glassland stars Jack Reynor as John, an Irish twenty-something working as a taxi driver. When he’s not behind the wheel, the only enjoyment in John’s private life seems limited to hanging out in video game parlors with his best friend Shane, played by Will Poulter. But back at home, John finds himself increasingly mired in the downward spiral of his mother Jean, played by Toni Collette in a fiercely raw performance. Now in the throes of late stage alcoholism, Jean has descended into a volatile and sometimes terrifying state, with each new episode of binge drinking bringing her closer to the brink of death. Finally able to break through Jean’s delusional wall of denial, John forces her to give rehab a try, but the government-subsidized stay is nowhere near the time Jean needs to have any hope of a lasting recovery. Eventually, an opportunity arises to place Jean in a facility for long term treatment—the only trouble is, how to pay for it? John must confront a stark choice between his mother’s well-being and entering a morally reprehensible underworld.

For those who might have been expecting or hoping for a soft, cuddly version of contemporary Ireland, Glassland sadly might not have been for you, although I hope you did appreciate the filmmakers’ bracing portrait of the lives and spaces of those Irish who rarely make it to the screen. Director Gerard Barrett, here making his second film, draws inspiration from such tough as nails European realists such as Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers and France’s Bruno Dumont, but brings an approach that’s all his own, especially in his work with actors. Winning a World Cinema acting prize for Jack Reynor at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Glassland also provided a bravura role for Australian-born actress Toni Collette. Hats off to Ms. Collette for taking on such a difficult, demanding and completely unflattering role; her seven-minute monologue as to how the birth of her Downs Syndrome son destroyed her marriage and her happiness is both grueling to listen to and extraordinary to watch. Beginning her career in the early 1990s, Collette achieved international recognition in 1994 for the sleeper hit Muriel’s Wedding, and later garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in 1999 for The Sixth Sense. Collette’s extensive credits include memorable performances in such films and television series as In Her Shoes, Little Miss Sunshine and The United States of Tara.

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