On the couch: Leader streaming reviews

Lawrence Kasdan’s early ‘90s time capsule ‘Grand Canyon’ still resonates today

Posted 5/13/20

I was 15 years old in early 1992 when I first saw Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon,” and the power of its narrative hit me like a freight train. Now that we’re all streaming …

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On the couch: Leader streaming reviews

Lawrence Kasdan’s early ‘90s time capsule ‘Grand Canyon’ still resonates today

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I was 15 years old in early 1992 when I first saw Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon,” and the power of its narrative hit me like a freight train. Now that we’re all streaming films in the social distancing era, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit what I saw as such a profound and moving film in my adolescence, simply to ask: Does it hold up?

My verdict is mixed, but mostly positive, since even its more glaring flaws are intriguing in retrospect.

Fair warning: “Grand Canyon” is deeply dated in many ways you’d expect of an earnestly liberal social-issues film created just as the 1990s, as a decade, were finally flowering into The Nineties, as a zeitgeist.

As I started rewatching it, the film’s racial politics seemed especially on the nose in the wake of the L.A. riots, until I recalled that “Grand Canyon” hit American theaters in January 1992, whereas the riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial didn’t ignite until the spring of that year.

That “Grand Canyon” seems so tied to its time now owes a lot to how much Kasdan was almost accidentally on the bleeding edge of culture back then.

Indeed, the film opens with two of its main characters attending an L.A. Lakers game that took place in 1991, before Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced to the world that he’d tested positive for HIV. The Washington Post’s reviewer Rita Kempley pointed to that scene as proof that “the filmmaker and his team ha[d] truly caught society on the verge.”

“Grand Canyon” wasn’t the first time Kasdan was credited with this feat. If you’re an “Okay, Boomer,” you know Kasdan as the writer-director behind 1983’s “The Big Chill,” a comedy-drama that was deemed emblematic of its generation.

If you’re a nerd like me, you know Kasdan as the all-too-often overlooked partner to both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, since he co-wrote “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”

Kasdan not only directed “Grand Canyon,” but co-wrote it with his wife Meg, and what they achieved was a contemporary meditation on the power we all have to make a meaningful difference in each other’s lives.

After taking in a Lakers game with his Hollywood action-movie producer friend Davis (Steve Martin), well-to-do husband and dad Mack (Kevin Kline) finds himself experiencing car trouble in a bad part of town, and it’s only due to the timely intervention of tow-truck operator Simon (Danny Glover) that a tense standoff doesn’t escalate to violence.

What’s funny is, as a kid, I loved the idea that fate or destiny or some other form of cosmic interconnectedness could gently tap us on the shoulder, in our everyday lives, and as it sinks in that Simon has saved his life, that’s how Mack sees what’s happened to him.

But now that I’m 44 years old, the same age as Kevin Kline when he played Mack in this film, I realize how such an outlook is a function of one’s privilege, because when your life has been so fortunate that you can specifically point to a very limited number of instances where things could have gone poorly enough to affect the rest of your life, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re leading a charmed life.

Simon, by contrast, has it absolutely right when he points out to Mack that he’s no angel, but just a guy who happened to respond to his call for a tow.

And yet, even with my own shift in perspective during the intervening 28-plus years, one doesn’t need to believe in fate or destiny to feel the impact of Kasdan’s message, which I’d argue actually resonates that much stronger without such pseudo-spirituality.

Because, as the film reiterates, with events that befall both Mack’s wife Claire (Mary McDonnell) and his aforementioned friend Davis, there are moments in all our lives that matter more than the rest. And while we might not always recognize them as such at the time, they are moments when we can change things for the better or can simply allow things to continue on their way.

Claire discovers an abandoned baby during an otherwise routine jog, and while already coping with the onset of empty-nest syndrome as her insightful son Roberto (Jeremy Sisto) becomes more of an independent person in his own right, she weighs whether or not to take the child in.

Meanwhile, Davis goes from demanding more gore in the movies he produces (his character was based on Joel Silver, who produced popular action films ranging from “Die Hard” to “The Matrix”) to crusading for the removal of violence from the cinema after being shot by a man trying to steal his watch.

And circling back around to Mack, he insists on befriending Simon in spite of the two men having almost nothing in common, and even helps him get a girlfriend and a home in a nice neighborhood, which would feel more like a white savior narrative if the characters themselves weren’t calling it out.

“Maybe we’re the only black people he knows,” Simon suggests, when his date wonders why Mack introduced them, before they both burst into laughter.

In case the names I’ve been listing haven’t tipped you off yet, Kasdan armed himself with an insanely talented cast in “Grand Canyon,” to the point that even the actors who weren’t given roles of much substance, such as Alfre Woodard and Mary-Louise Parker, were still enormously overqualified for those parts.

Any message-minded film can quickly turn treacly or preachy without a disciplined execution, so it’s fortunate that, besides the film’s skilled company of actors, Lawrence and Meg Kasdan’s writing and direction makes the narrative hauntingly authentic and electric.

I love the little details, like how Roberto (whose dad named him after the professional baseball player Roberto Clemente) speculates that his new girlfriend’s parents might have been low-key racist enough to be worried that he was Hispanic, before he met them, or how he casually asks his mom if she and his dad are getting divorced because he’s perceptive enough to sense the tension between them.

The back-to-back dream sequences in this film remain the most genuine portrayals of the Uncanny Valley quality of especially vivid dreams I’ve seen onscreen, and the James Newton Howard score for this film was so good, I bought it on cassette and practically wore out the tape from listening to it on my Walkman.

Yes, you might cringe at the ‘90s suburban dad-ness of Warren Zevon being included on the soundtrack, but on balance, “Grand Canyon” is a film that still has something to say today.

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