In hindsight, Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill was the original thirtysomething. With a fresh satirical eye, Kasdan caught the plight of baby boomers who had ridden the wave of the ’60s and then discovered — to their dismay and delight — that life’s truest adventure lay within the folds of the middle-class existence they thought they’d rejected. Those who saw the movie as Kasdan’s slick renunciation of counterculture values were being silly. For, of course, the transition from the ’60s to the ’80s wasn’t simply about ex-hippies suddenly deciding to make a lot of money. It was about the call of biology itself, about counterculture refugees growing older and realizing that they wanted children, families, stability — the home-and-hearth values that are really eternal human values. Kasdan showed us the earnest comic bellyaching of a self-centered but often brave generation. In doing so, he caught the temper of an era.
Now, in Grand Canyon, he’s trying to do the same thing for the fortysomething generation of the ’90s — well-meaning people who’ve achieved stability but find themselves beset by crime, anxiety, and inchoate spiritual longings. Far more than The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, which is set in contemporary Los Angeles, seems aware of its own timeliness. The movie is way too self-conscious — it has a solemn zeitgeist chic. The characters are constantly lapsing into earnest Southern California banalities about how screwed up (or wonderful) the world is, and whenever the film stops for one of these plaintively mystical monologues, it achieves total heaviosity. Kasdan, though, is such a canny, intuitive entertainer that I got swept up in the movie despite its soul-of-an-era pretensions. There’s real feeling in Grand Canyon, a richly textured empathy for Americans who don’t know anymore what they’re looking for.
Kasdan’s strength is that he loves actors and knows how to write for them. The movie has six major characters. Kevin Kline plays an immigration lawyer who is essentially happy with his life yet wants something more, something he can’t quite voice. He has slept, just once, with his secretary (Mary-Louise Parker), and she’s in love with him, yet he deliberately stops short of having an affair. His life suddenly acquires purpose when a kindly black tow-truck driver (Danny Glover) saves him from some inner-city hoodlums. Compulsively, Kline befriends the driver — an act of white liberal guilt that, miraculously, begins to transcend its own contrivance. Glover gives a beautiful performance, his tenderness shading off into unspoken melancholy.
Out jogging, Kline’s wife (Mary McDonnell) discovers an abandoned baby in the bushes and realizes that she wants to keep her. The movie needs the slight craziness of this maternal whim of iron, and McDonnell brings it an emotional fervor that’s funny and full of conviction. Steve Martin has the Jeff Goldblum comic-relief role. He plays a producer of shallow, bloody action movies, the sort of Hollywood snake-oil salesman who defends his work as an accurate reflection of the world. On some level, that’s what he actually believes.
The movie could have used some more sex and spice. Given that Kasdan is trying to create an up-to-the-minute snapshot of an era, he would have been smart to uncork his gift for pungent conversational satire. When Glover and Alfre Woodard go on a first date and return looking blissful, we miss seeing them get to know each other. Still, for every misstep, Kasdan pulls out a crackerjack scene, such as Parker’s speech about why Kline owes it to her to let her hate him, or an audacious dream sequence in which McDonnell confronts the primal splintering of her family. Grand Canyon is finally a very classy soap opera, one that holds a generous mirror up to its audience’s anxieties. It’s the sort of movie that says: Life is worth living. After a couple of hours spent with characters this enjoyable, the message — in all its forthright sentimentality — feels earned. B+