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‘Grand Canyon’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 1992

 


Director:
Lawrence Kasdan
Cast:
Danny Glover;
Kevin Kline;
Steve Martin;
Mary McDonnell;
Mary-Louise Parker;
Alfre Woodard
R
Under 17 restricted


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"Grand Canyon" considers the ever-widening chasms that divide us, the shifting demographic fault lines that have set society quaking like the needle on Richter's scale. A superbly heartfelt drama for six diverse actors, it is as colorfully striated as its majestic namesake -- and almost as wide. The film's depth is another matter altogether.

Lawrence Kasdan, who produced, directed and co-wrote the film with his wife, Meg, brings us a message as plain as the noses on Mount Rushmore's face. Kasdan, who first said what everybody else was thinking in 1983's "The Big Chill," does it just as keenly in this contemporary piece. As one protagonist puts it, "This country has gone to {expletive}." For boomers and boomboxers alike, the existential chill has become a numbing freeze.

"Grand Canyon" begins with a juxtaposition of two basketball games -- one pickup, one pro -- and continues to contrast the fast track and the wrong side of the tracks. Kevin Kline, as an idealistic but rich immigration lawyer, sets the plot in motion when he tries to shortcut a post-Lakers game traffic jam. He is rescued from the resulting "Bonfire"-esque brush with death by Danny Glover, playing a good Samaritan in a tow truck.

Hoping to return the kindness, Kline fixes Glover up with a colleague (Alfre Woodard, who gets to be sexy for a change) and helps move Glover's beleaguered sister and her family to a safer neighborhood. As time goes by, the two friends find that they are soulmates underneath their differently colored collars. In fact, they have far more in common than do Kline and his best buddy, a producer of barbaric movies, swaggeringly played by Steve Martin.

Shortly after a set-to with the editors of his newest picture -- they left all the {expletive} guts on the cutting-room floor -- the exasperated Martin gets his just deserts. "Am I the only one here who respects the writing?" he blusters. Moments later he is lying in a pool of his own blood, shot for his Rolex. The disaster leads to an epiphany, and he promises Kline's wife (Mary McDonnell) that hereafter he will make only life-affirming movies.

If the Kasdans weren't so savvy, he'd probably mean it. But Martin's producer, like their other well-drawn characters, is what he is. And his plans to become the Preston Sturges of the '90s fade as his shattered leg heals and he takes to careering about the studio back lot in a golf cart. His remake of "Sullivan's Travels" will just have to wait till the audience's blood lust has been sated.

The reference to Sturges' work, a 1941 film about a director of comedy who sets out to make a serious statement, has more to do with Kasdan's theme than Martin's character. Sullivan disguised himself as a tramp to learn about life, just as Kasdan credits "Canyon's" homeless with magical powers. As with the shaggy vagrants of "The Fisher King," their schizophrenic gibberish can become stunningly cogent.

"Keep the baby. You need her as much as she needs you," one of them tells Kline's wife, who is wondering what to do about the foundling she scooped up from a roadside copse. A mother with an early case of empty-nest syndrome, she finds herself when she finds the child. Kline, who is contemplating an affair with his younger secretary (Mary-Louise Parker), is against the adoption. Of course, there are bridges to be built between the sexes and the ages too.

A fey young woman, Parker's character seems cut from a familiar pattern. An outside observer, a generation removed like Meg Tilly's astute naif in "The Big Chill," she looks at the world with diminished expectations. "That's how you get into trouble, thinking you ought to be happier," she confides to a pal. But we want more than anything to see all these fine folks live happily ever after.

"Grand Canyon" gives us a measure of joy, but it is not a sappy, unrealistic film. Like John Sayles's polemic, "City of Hope," it teems with issues, from getting a busy signal when dialing 911 to kids gunning down kids. Even when he wasn't trying, Kasdan's camera found tragedy, as with the opening footage of Magic Johnson, filmed before anybody knew he had the AIDS virus. The filmmaker and his team have truly caught society on the verge.

This City of the Angels captured by Kasdan, its skies buzzing with helicopters, reminds us most of all of Vietnam. But this is not war, it's suicide, America in the latent stages of self-inflicted apocalypse. Kasdan validates our fears, but he doesn't strip us of all hope, for the central image also promises something greater than ourselves. The view from the edge can be awesome.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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