It appeared to be a blatant Hollywood rip-off of John Sayles’ much more rigorous indie drama Return of the Secaucus 7. It was as slick as the gloss without which no girl’s lips were ready for their close-up in 1983. And it left the early work of a now-famous actor on the cutting-room floor, when director Lawrence Kasdan turned Kevin Costner’s character — a charismatic former ’60s radical whose suicide draws his old college friends together for a weekend of jogging, wine sipping, pot smoking, and navel gazing — into a memory rather than an in-the-flesh participant. But from the first bars of Marvin Gaye’s plangent news report, ”I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” The Big Chill reasserts itself effortlessly, in its 15th-anniversary reissue, as an irresistibly satisfying cultural artifact.
There is, for starters, a cast of such bursting talent and promise that just to study their ’80s big-shag haircuts and contemplate their subsequent careers is a pleasure: Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams, Meg Tilly — each of them assigned a two-dimensional personality type, all of them crossing paths in a nimble reel. (A decade and a half later, that group hug is imitated, in a whiter shade of pale, by countless young-demo shows on TV.)
There’s a tidied-up examination, in the unsubtle script by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, of the exquisitely self-involved issues of the era — issues that haven’t really changed all that much. (A decade and a half later, ”selling out” has, for many thoroughly chilled capitalists, become an economic condition devoutly to be wished rather than feared.)
And there’s that perfect soundtrack, jammed with hit after timeless hit by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Aretha Franklin, Procol Harum, the Young Rascals. So integral is the music to the heat of Chill that even a now-hackneyed scene like ensemble-dancing-while-cleaning-the-kitchen (to the Temptations’ ”Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”) takes on a glow far lovelier than the chore warrants — as does this ingratiating, fake movie. B