Kasdan tries to come to terms with the breakdown of society

'GRAND CANYON'

January 17, 1992|By Stephen Hunter SO:.Sun Film Critic

Any movie calling itself "Grand Canyon" ought to be pretty deep, or it's going to get itself laughed off the screen.

Pardon the noise, but ha, ha, ha.

Deep? You could fill it with water and stand in it for an hour and go home with dry socks. Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan as a meditation on random violence and the breakdown of social convention, it lacks the vigor or the guts to be of any use to anyone.

Kasdan zeroes in on a group of Los Angelinos who must confront urban disruption on a daily basis and come to terms with it. Mostly, the coming to terms involves endless stilted dialogue of the touchy-feely variety and tepidly ironic interactions, against the fabric of the disintegrating city. "Day of the Locusts" it ain't; "Day of the Gnats," anybody?

Kasdan's hero is Kevin Kline, an immigration lawyer somewhat adrift in a marriage without warmth and a career without satisfaction. And a personality without interest: Kline is almost colorless. One night, on the way home from a Lakers game, his expensive Lexus breaks down and very quickly four tough young black men are menacing him. Kasdan films this ugly racial confrontation unblinkingly, but Kline's reactions are so abstracted it's difficult to believe in the reality of the situation. He seems to be a secret agent making quips while in mortal danger in a '60s Bond rip-off.

Eventually, a decent black tow-truck driver (Danny Glover) shows up and defuses the hostile confrontation and Kline, believing rightly that his life has been saved, and deeply moved by it, decides to make something meaningful of the incident. Stepping across class and race barriers, he courts Glover, attempting to woo him into friendship.

If there's anything more difficult to portray than the awkward, wretched, quicksilver bursts of warmth and flashes of doubt that telegraph through your brain as friendship takes reluctant root, I didn't know what it is, and after "Grand Canyon," I still don't. Mostly these two talk past each other, and Kasdan's moral myopia sets in most offensively when he chronicles Kline's eagerness to reach down and "help" his new friend by using his network of connections.

Other stories circle around this one, equally mild and soporific, equally unmoving. The weakest of these features Steve Martin, as a crass Hollywood producer of the Joel Silver variety, who has made a fortune on violent urban fantasies. It's a measure of Kasdan's smugness that he feels so morally superior to Silver, but most of Silver's films -- "Die Hard," "Ricochet," "Predator" -- possess what most of Kasdan's -- "The Accidental Tourist," "I Love You to Death" -- do not, which is vigor and panache.

Kasdan's condescension feels particularly crude when he himself resorts to an irony about as subtle as any found in the Silver canon: His producer Martin is shot by a street criminal and forced to confront the necessary results of his worship of violence. It changes him profoundly . . . for about a week.

In another sector of the film, Kline's wife, Mary McConnell, "finds" an abandoned baby in the bushes while jogging and decides to adopt it. But so chilled and aloof is McConnell's performance that, even given the front-loading of her do-goodism, it's difficult to regard her with much admiration. She's a limited, self-involved actress.

When Kasdan tries to show us life in the ghetto, his work-ups are a pallid imitation of John Singleton's corrosive "Boyz N the Hood." His take on Hollywood feels just as synthetic. Only Mary-Louise Parker, as a mousy secretary with a crush on Kline, crackles to life.

But if the anecdotes themselves are meaningless, even more dispiriting is the relationships between them. One keeps yearning for a pattern, for incisive irony or vivid comedy or poignant contrast, for the movie to strike sparks as it juxtaposes the lives of its characters. But if the lives haven't been imagined with any rigor, neither has the overall mesh. The different sectors of the film remain inert.

The only commonality is a crude one, and that's that each of the participants has a moment where he or she muses on the chasm of the title, using it as a symbol that Kasdan means to illuminate their lives and our times. It's an absurd conceit, except at the movie's end when a few of the characters travel to the big ditch's lip and look across it. The image says more than the two hours of movie that came before have said: Here is America, spectacular and solid as the earth itself, filled with the beauty of the possible.

Grand Canyon'

Starring Kevin Kline and Danny Glover.

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated R.

... **

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