In 1983, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan created a generational landmark with The Big Chill, a movie about a reunion of friends from the Sixties groping to understand themselves in the sober light of the early Eighties. In a similar vein, Kasdan’s new movie, Grand Canyon, weaves stories of interlocking lives to create a composite portrait of the American middle class in the early Nineties. But it has grander ambitions than The Big Chill. Its setting (and subject) is Los Angeles, which Kasdan portrays as a crucible of U.S. contradiction—a capital of show-business affluence and Third World squalor, of New Age optimism and gangland nihilism. The lives of six characters overlap as they are threatened by the chaos, cruelty and random violence of the city. The movie is dense with social commentary. And considering how much ground it tries to cover, Grand Canyon has surprising depth. Although it skirts the edge of glibness, it is well acted and eloquently directed—a drama in six-part harmony that hums with intelligence, tenderness and wit.
Grand Canyon's daisy-chain narrative unfolds as a series of calamities. On his way home from a Lakers basketball game one night, an immigration lawyer named Mack (Kevin Kline) takes a shortcut to escape freeway gridlock— and ends up stranded with engine trouble in a dangerous part of town. After a gang of black youths surrounds his car, he is rescued by a black tow-truck driver named Simon (Danny Glover). Awkwardly, Mack tries to return the
favor. He offers to help Simon relocate his sister’s family to a safer neighborhood. And he sets up a blind date for Simon with the first black woman he meets, Jane (Alfre Woodard).
Meanwhile, Mack’s wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), discovers an abandoned baby when she is jogging. Her desire to adopt the child, and her husband’s reticence, open up cracks in their marriage. With their teenage son on the verge of independence, Claire’s maternal instincts are revived, while Mack is distracted by his young secretary, Dee (Mary-Louise Parker). Dee, in turn, re-evaluates her life after being shaken up by an act of vandalism. And Mack’s best friend, Davis (Steve Martin), a producer of violent movies, re-evaluates his life after being crippled by a mugger’s bullet.
In the mean streets of Kasdan’s Los Angeles, it never rains—it pours. Catastrophes great and small coincide with uncanny timing. In one especially crowded sequence of just a few minutes, Mack cuts his finger while slicing tomatoes during a marital argument, runs from an earthquake and gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a heart-attack victim next door.
But Grand Canyon is about the convergence of miracles out of chaos. And its conceits are artfully choreographed. A fine cast makes the most improbable circumstances strangely credible. Kline, working with Kasdan for the fourth time, delivers his most natural performance to date. Glover projects irresistible warmth. And Parker achieves an affecting balance of vulnerability and strength.
Kasdan, who wrote the script with his wife, Meg, directs with confident lyricism. He links the story’s fragments with haunting shots of a
police helicopter swooping like a dark angel over L.A.’s invisible war zones. At one point, the camera cuts from a harrowing drive-by shooting to a glimpse of a helicopter rising over the city lights—and then to a profile of Dee’s long stockinged legs propped up on her balcony above the empty glitter of the night.
The movie’s liberal angst is highly assailable. Kasdan exaggerates the living hell of the city at the risk of trivializing it. And although Grand Canyon attempts to span all social strata, its viewpoint is anchored in Mack’s white liberal guilt. But the self-aware script shrewdly preempts the sort of criticism it is bound to attract. When Davis says, “There’s so much rage going on, we’re lucky to have the movies to vent it,” Mack replies: “That line is so tired.” Then, Davis, in his supercilious wisdom, adds: “You haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”
Kasdan does not pretend to answer life’s riddles in Grand Canyon. The movie provides a suggestion of redemption, but no more. Its solutions are incomplete, and its characters remain fallible. The movie’s title, meanwhile, works as a multilayered metaphor, as versatile as a Swiss army knife. On one level, the Grand Canyon represents a natural wonder that puts human problems in perspective. Sitting on the edge of it, says Simon, made him realize that “our life means diddly to those rocks.” The title also refers to the rift in American society and the erosion of civilized order—what Davis describes as “a big hole in the country.” With Grand Canyon, Kasdan has peered over the edge and come up with a compelling view.
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