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‘Grand Canyon’

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 1992


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

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In "Grand Canyon," producer, director and screenwriter Lawrence "Big Chill" Kasdan once again brings together a disparate group of people wondering what's it all about, and taps into the Zeitgeist and all the appliances that come with it.

But the graceful and affecting "Grand Canyon," with its flock of fortysomethings, is much more than just "The Bigger Chill." It maps these dark, desperate, fearful times with comic and terrifying veracity, and holds out a glimmer of hope for the soul-searching survivors of the '90s.

A series of seemingly random but life-changing events brings together a handful of people from the have and have-not areas of Los Angeles, and provokes a ripple of epiphanies about relationships and responsibilities. Kevin Kline is Mack, an appealing but conflicted control-freak immigration lawyer, wondering about what constitutes a good life and worrying about how fragile it is. When Mack impulsively takes a shortcut home from a basketball game and his BMW breaks down, a la "The Bonfire of the Vanities," in a black neighborhood, he's aided in his moment of danger by tow-truck operator Simon (Danny Glover), who calmly talks down the threat.

Mary McDonnell (you know her as "Stands With Fist") plays Mack's wife, troubled by an increasingly senseless world and tender about sending their teenage son off to camp. She discovers an abandoned Hispanic infant crying Moses-like in the roadside bushes during her morning jog. Mary-Louise Parker is Mack's secretary Dee, a single woman consumed by loneliness, who focuses her emotional hunger on Mack.

Kasdan's biggest coup is in casting Steve Martin as Mack's friend Davis, a Joel Silver-like Hollywood producer who can culturally conceptualize in lofty terms, but packs his flicks with the basest and most brutal ultra-violence. When he becomes a victim of senseless violence himself, Davis (literally) sees the light, but too soon finds a way to rationalize his "art" and recant his conversion. Martin's scenes are funny and thoughtful: "Grand Canyon" is perhaps the first film to depict graphically the impact of violence on a victim. Through Davis, Kasdan takes a humorous poke at his film colleagues but also speaks from the heart about the cultural power and responsibility of the movies and moviemakers.

Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with his wife Meg, is a sensitive cultural pulse-taker. In 1982 "The Big Chill" accurately predicted the period of selfish, "self-actualizing" yuppie values, and "Grand Canyon" seems to get all the goods on this frantic decade without feeling crammed or soap-operatic. The film is full of oddly prescient images: In the opening sequence Kline and Martin have courtside seats at a Lakers game, where a vibrant Magic Johnson dominates the court.

"We live in chaos -- it's the central issue in everyone's life," Davis tells Mack as they leave the game. The film plays against a visual and sonic background of urban violence, an undertow of rage and fear; the continual sound of sirens and helicopters, the ominous booming pulse of megabass-equipped cars, the heart-stopping sound of a telephone in the night are a shocking reminder of how much danger and discomfort we've accustomed ourselves to.

Pervading the film is a distinctly metaphysical (or new age, if you must) question about the nature of the impulses and coincidences (miracles?) that set these stalled characters moving again. The continually circling surveillance helicopters that hover over nearly every scene can be viewed as ominous, but may also be seen as guardian angels.

It's tempting to be cynical about Hollywood indulging in metaphysics, with more movies like "Ghost" and "Defending Your Life" materializing as producers and directors enter middle age and start sensing their own mortality. But "Grand Canyon" urges us not to be cynical. Stop making sense. Do something, and stick with it.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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