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Grand Canyon
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by Chris Parry

"A little preachy, but hey, it has something to say."
3 stars

Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon is an unfairly neglected, more or less forgotten film that takes a look at life in Los Angeles in the early 90's and says "what the hell are we doing here?" It's a question that still has relevance today, perhaps even moreso, as our lives seem to impact the lives of others more than ever have before. In the time this film was made, all we had to worry about was stepping over homeless people and avoiding the occasional drive-by. Today? Exploding buildings, hijacked planes, wars, corruption, and a general state of apathy that, just as it did in the 80's and 90's, apparently excuses us for the selfish crap that we indulge in over the course of our lives. Still, who the hell wants to be told they're part of the problem?

"This country has gone to shit." So says Mack (Kevin Kline), a lawyer having a crisis of conscience as he juggles an affair, a wife having a midlife crisis, and a near-death experience involving a carload of gangbangers and a tough-talking tow druck driver who saved his hide.

"They smoked me. See a nigga running around here, they smoke ya, ask questions later. Well I ain't staying here, I ain't FUCKING STAYING HERE!" So says Otis (Patrick Malone), a black teenager trying to cope with his new white neighborhood, some over-enthusiastic cops, and the absence of his old homeboys.

"Ya know, it would be great if you could sort of be down about things, but still be alright with it. Like, finally accept that fact that you're gonna feel bad most of the time and not fight it." So says Dee (Mary-Louise Parker), a lovelorn secretary trying to cope with the realization that she's a fucktoy.

"The world ain't supposed to work like this. I'm supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is." So says Simon (Danny Glover), a tow truck driver doing his best to dodge a bullet, while still doing his job.

If all of these quotes are beginning to sound a little defeatist, then I've selected good quotes to use, because Grand Canyon spends a whole lot of time pitying its protagonists. Traditional films have a story arc - a beginning, a middle, and end. Grand Canyon instead has an hysteria arc. Folks who are messed up get more messed up by other folks who are even more messed up. Then they get even more messed up by folks who are completely nutso.

And then the music kicks in.

White boy Mack's car runs out of juice in a bad neighorhood, and the locals start to circle. As things look grim, Simon the black tow truck driver shows up and talks him out of a jam. The two do a little bonding, and when Mack finds out that Simon's family have just been shot up in a drive-by, he offers to help them move to Whiteland.

But peace and quiet to one man is an eery silence to another, so when Simon's nephew runs off the rails and freaks out, an attempted good samaritan act turns out to be in reality just the opposite.

Meanwhile, Mack's wife (Mary McDonell) has found a baby lying in the street and wants to keep it. And his son is learning to drive. And his movie producer buddy, Davis (Steve Martin) has just been shot in the leg by a mugger, causing him to have an epiphany that maybe he shouldn't be making violent movies.

Related incidents? Not really. More like a series of random happenings designed to show us the futility of the things that worry us. Larry Kasdan wants us to say "I'm part of the problem. All this bad stuff stems from me," but instead it comes across as "bad things happen in LA."

Relating to these characters is no easy task for most in the audience because they're just so darn verbose. Every character feels like they're standing on a soapbox as they launch into spirited diatribes about life, the universe and nothing. Every incident feels staged, and because of that lack of reality, it comes across as almost safe. Gangbangers walk away when politely asked to. Homeless people dispense sage advice. Cops hold your hand as you tell them about your faltering love life.

And then there's the 'after-thought' violence. In Kasdan's world, no walk down the street would be heartwrenching enough without showing an old woman scrubbing dried blood off the stoop. No scene of quiet reflection would be reflective enough without a background musical score bopping its way into your head.

"That's part of your problem: you haven't seen enough movies. All of life's riddles are answered in the movies." So says Davis (Steve Martin), a Hollywood producer spending his life making unadulterated shit that pulls a profit despite itself. Of course, he's full of shit, and the movie he's in proves that fact. There are no answers here. There are barely any questions beyond "what does it all mean?" and "why are people so darn mean?"

Grand Canyon is absolutely a noble effort, and the performances are genuinely heartfelt, competent and a credit to all concerned. Kline in particular delivers a big performance, as does Mary McDonell, as does the usually one-dimensional Danny Glover. If performance was all that mattered, Grand Canyon would be considered a classic work.

But there's far more to a masterpiece than just being able to recite your lines - the lines themselves need to ring a chord with an audience. While everything said in this film is considered and poignant and meaningful, it just isn't real. And that's where the impact of everything on the screen dries up and floats away and ends up in the genre of 'airy-fairy twaddle'.

Mack: "Why is it that when someone's successful in one field, they think they know about everything?" Gee Mack, I dunno. Ask Larry Kasdan.

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originally posted: 09/22/03 20:05:57
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User Comments

9/16/09 Jeff Wilder Well-intentioned. But preachy and didactic. Crash was better. 3 stars
5/06/08 mb Interesting, but kind of flat and incomplete. 3 stars
6/15/04 T. Maj What was Roger Ebert smoking when he gave this slop 4 stars? 1 stars
3/28/04 john hate to disagree with some esteemed colleagues but I thought it was a good urban fable 5 stars
4/01/03 Jack Sommersby Dreadfully earnest Kasdan snowjob. Martin is film's only real asset. 1 stars
12/05/02 boshko cenic honest and compassionate portrayal of discontent in the U.S. seen from various viewpoints 4 stars
8/07/02 R.W. Welch Slice of LA life; professional work but not really riveting. 4 stars
6/30/02 Phil M. Aficionado Very good piece of social commentary and about mid-life changes and "fate". 4 stars
2/18/02 Andrew Carden Pretty Good Movie, However Doesn't Have Many Laughs. 4 stars
7/09/01 AK A favorite. I wouldn't have minded if it had gone on longer. 5 stars
6/20/01 Elvisfan Despite some questionable dialogue, movie has great value & is extremely timely 5 stars
4/17/01 BrainPan watched it in HS English class and liked it. still do. 4 stars
12/04/99 JJ Excellent--maybe somewhat dated now. Strong movie about contempory life in LA, and US 5 stars
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  02-Jan-1991 (R)



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