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Kasdan's Grand Canyon dramatizes urban nightmares

GRAND CANYON

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

Starring Kevin Kline, Danny Glover,

Mary McDonnell and Steve Martin.

Now playing at Loews Cheri.

By BILL JACKSON

QUESTIONS OF MODERN URBAN LIFE are pondered in the new film Grand Canyon, which features an excellent cast and the director/screenwriter of The Big Chill. It poses questions in a powerful way, provoking thought and reminding city dwellers of the danger of their everyday lives.

Lawrence Kasdan, who has also done work on such diverse films as Body Heat, Return of the Jedi and The Accidental Tourist, is the co-writer, director and co-producer of Grand Canyon. His wife Meg co-authored the film, which deals with the intertwining lives of six Los Angeles residents.

It is not characters Kasdan is interested in working with here, though, but types, each of which represent various aspects of Angelino life. Kevin Kline, Kasdan's favorite leading man, plays Mack, an immigration lawyer whose car stalls in a bad neighborhood at night. He survives a confrontation with a gang thanks to tow-truck driver Simon (Danny Glover), who maintains a long-distance relationship with his deaf daughter and tries to keep his sister and her children alive as they feel the violence of gang wars in their neighborhood.

Mack's wife (Mary McDonnell of Dances With Wolves) is going through a crisis because her 15-year old son is growing away from her. She finds an abandoned baby by the roadside and wants desperately to adopt it. Meanwhile, Mack has an affair with his secretary (Mary-Louise Parker) and fixes Simon up with her friend (Alfre Woodard). Also, Mack's good friend Davis (Steve Martin) is a Joel Silver-like producer of ultraviolent movies who is shot in a senseless mugging. By the way, there's an earthquake, a neighbor's heart attack, a gangland machine gun attack and umpteen literal and figurative references to the Grand Canyon itself thrown in for good measure.

That breathless summary should give you an indication of just how much the Kasdans have bitten off. This film poses more questions than any film has in a good long while. Kasdan has a gift for directing toward the quiet detail, such as the silent woman scrubbing blood off of a sidewalk as Simon's sister and her daughter walk by, or the ominous shots of police helicopters scanning the city with searchlights, all of which force the viewer to think.

What the filmmakers want to do is question the sanity of continuing to live with the seemingly hopeless violence of today's society. This is done with amazing success in the first half of the film. The scene in which Martin is shot is one of the best deglamorizations of violence in recent memory. After the shooting, Kasdan cuts to a close-up of Martin's face in shock as he lies on the ground. As he pulls away slowly, we see the puddle of blood we have been conditioned to expect. What we don't expect is that Martin's character has wet his pants. It is a brilliant shot, and for the first time ever, I saw Steve Martin on the screen and forgot that he was Steve Martin.

Kasdan sets up the comparisons between the characters quietly. Mack's son and Simon's nephew are of the same age, and yet while Mack's son worries only about his new girlfriend and his driver's license, Simon's nephew says confidently that he won't live to be 25. We aren't hit over the head with the comparisons. Kasdan remains supremely confident in himself and in the intelligence of his audience.

There are problems, however. Unlike The Big Chill, Kasdan has no excuse here to keep his characters interacting with each other, so he must use some willing suspension of disbelief to keep Kline and Glover on screen together.

In addition, only three of the people in the film rise above being one-dimensional, and of those three, only Kline is given a full character. McDonnell and Glover's characters are barely there, and Martin, Parker and Woodard do their best with essentially flat roles.

The subplot with Kline's secretary is cursory and has little to do with the overall arc of the film. I was expecting it to explode into rage or violence but it simply meanders, with Parker's character finding happiness on her own. And much of Martin's dialogue is simply a stream of one-liners which, although they are very funny, take you out of the film, and sound artificial in context.

However, the moment of the film belongs to Martin, who, near the end, realizes that he considers himself "lucky" that he was only shot in the leg and will limp for the rest of his life. "Our criterion for lucky is so low," he muses.

In the end, the Kasdans want it both ways. They have realized a nightmare vision of L. A. and crammed every Angelino's worst lifetime fears into a short time frame. They also want the "Wonderful Life" side, however, and a few shots of the Grand Canyon and happy characters can't erase the memory of scenes such as one where an insurance agent tries to sell a mother a policy that will pay for the funerals of her children when they die. It is on a true telling of the fear and the bleakest feelings of urbanites that the Kasdans are most successful.