Grand Canyon (1991): Lawrence Kasdan’s Zeitgeist Film, Starring Kevin Kline and Steve Martin

Director Lawrence Kasdan has described Grand Canyon as a “serious comedy about the unpleasantness of urban life in Los Angeles.”

Like his 1983 feature, “The Big Chill,” the new one is a zeitgeist film that reflects the culture and mores of its times, boasting a wonderful ensemble of actors, including Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Steve Martin, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodward, and Mary Louise Parker.

It’s 1991, L.A. The lives of six people intertwine in a way that will mark them forever. Transformed by a series of unsettling and often surprising encounters, these individuals (some family members, some strangers, and some friends) are put under the probing eye of writer-director-producer Kasdan, who himself had adopted L.A. as home. As the world around them careens seemingly out of control, each tries to bring a semblance of civilization to his/her life–and keep the fear at bay.

Mack (Kline), a successful immigration lawyer, goes to a Lakers game with his best friend David (Steve Martin), a self-absorbed producer of schlock violent Hollywood actioners; his license plate reads, “GRSS PNTS.” Driving back from the game, Mack’s car shuts down on a dark street in Inglewood. After calling for a tow truck, he becomes the target of a gang of hoodlums, who threaten to beat him and take his car. Enters Simon (Danny Glover), the driver of the truck, whose strength and authoritative voice talks the boys out of the plan. Simon becomes Mack’s savior, and his act of kindness results in a new, meaningful friendship.

To reciprocate, Mack introduces the single Simon to Jane (Alfre Woodard) in what becomes a successful effort of matchmaking. Meanwhile, Mack’s wife Claire (Mary McDonnell) discovers an abandoned baby and decides to keep it, hoping that it would revitalize their stale marriage; both spouses go through menopause.

Well-intentioned, “Grand Canyon” is timely tale about Big City dwellers grapping with the harsh realities of contemporary urban life. With humor and compassion, they forge unlikely friendships amid the chaos and begin to recognize the small miracles around them.

The script is co-written by Kasdan and is wife Meg. The creative team includes director of photography Owen Roizman (Tootsie), costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers (The Color Purple), production designer Bo Welch (The Accidental Tourist, Edward Scissorhands) and editor Carol Littleton (E.T., The Big Chill).

Significantly, the movie opens with a shot of a chaotic traffic jam, bringing out the worst in people (violence, foul language, aggressiveness), and ends with a sweeping shot of the glorious Grand Canyon in Arizona. Standing at the edge of this monumental sight, the film’s characters are silent, awed by nature’s grandeur, which has the power to dwarf their petit individual concerns.

Crossing genders, classes, races and other lines, the Grand Canyon is a symbolic place, a communal experience. The film urges us to find our own Grand Canyon, literally or figuratively, a personal space where we can share some part of ourselves with those around us.

Oscar Alert

Lawrence Kasdan and Mary Kasdan received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

The winner was Callie Khouri for Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise,” a film which is also partly set in Arizona and in fact ends at the Grand Canyon!

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