Guess when Lawrence Kasdan wrote this line of dialogue: “The point is there’s a gulf in this country, an ever-widening abyss between the people who have stuff and the people who don’t have shit.” If you assumed it was for Darling Companion, the director’s latest film, you’d be off by about 20 years. Long before this creaky ensemble dramedy about a lost dog, Kasdan made a domestic epic about a lost America. Seen from today, 1991’s Grand Canyon proves to be both a quaintly disorienting and painfully familiar portrait of the union.
Kasdan was once one of the hottest writers and directors in Hollywood, able to toggle between neo-noir (Body Heat), sci-fi (The Empire Strikes Back), western (Silverado), and literary adaptation (The Accidental Tourist). He is best known for his era-defining, baby-boomers-in-spiritual-crisis movie The Big Chill, which the latest film—also starring Kevin Kline—overtly apes, switching out a funeral for a wedding, college buddies for an extended family, and premature nostalgia for pure schmaltz. Yet it’s Kasdan’s less celebrated bottle of zeitgeist that merits reopening: Grand Canyon, a soap-operatic portrait of early ’90s America that chronicled a country at war with itself rather than the world, when societal chaos still felt tragic rather than commonplace.
Grand Canyon is a (too) earnest time capsule from the MC Hammer era, when racism and homelessness were issues, not givens, when the distance between citizens could be measured on a Warren Zevon–to–N.W.A scale, when cars had phones and remote controls had wires. The film starts with a handy chance encounter between Mack (a white-collar white guy with a blue-collar name, played by Kasdan fave Kline) and Simon (a blue-collar black guy with a Hebraic name, played by Danny Glover). Taking a shortcut through the hood after a Lakers game, Mack’s car breaks down and is quickly surrounded, Bonfire of the Vanities–style, by gun-toting, antagonism-wielding gangbangers. Enter tow-truck driver Simon, who gingerly talks them out of violence. “The world ain’t supposed to work like this,” he tells the leader of the pack, pleading for clemency despite the rule of the gun. “Everything’s supposed to be different from what it is.” It’s classic Kasdan: dramatically circumstantial, casually platitudinous, irretrievably written. But what makes the scene work, and makes Kasdan’s film of interwoven relationships lean more toward Robert Altman than to Paul Haggis, is how even canned lines are delivered as sincere thought rather than recitation, as grist for debate rather than hysteria.
Grand Canyon didn’t invent the multicharacter, interconnected-lives-as-city-as-America-as-the-state-of-the-world genre, but it did kick it into high gear. While owing a great debt to Altman’s meandering ’70s masterworks like Nashville and A Wedding, Grand Canyon took a totally ’90s tack, looking out at the world (i.e., Los Angeles) as a way of confronting the existential crises lurking within the white liberal conscience. (“The world is so nuts, it makes me wonder about all the choices that we’ve made,” is how Mary McDonnell’s character twists it.) Similarly constructed films that followed were superior (Altman’s own Short Cuts, 1993), stranger (The End of Violence, 1997), more ambitious (Magnolia, 1999), and more shameless (Crash, 2004), but it was Grand Canyon that tilled the soil. Eventually, filmmakers like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Steven Soderbergh plotted interconnections on an international scale (Babel, Traffic), tackling grander and grander global quandaries via a handy Hollywood template that turned generalizations into insight, chance into serendipity, and cliché into meaning.
As in those films, Grand Canyon piles incident on top of incident: a found baby, a heart attack, a mugging, a shoot-out, an earthquake. But what happens matters less in Grand Canyon than what people say. The ensuing friendship between Mack and Simon unfurls as a series of monologues, as does Mack’s exchanges with producer pal Davis (Steve Martin, ace as an a-hole), wife Claire (helmet-haired monument to 1991 McDonnell), and son Roberto (jailbait Jeremy Sisto). There are a lot of speeches in Grand Canyon, most of them uncomfortably on the nose. This is the sound of a filmmaker wrestling (transparently) with ideas, talking at but not quite down to his audience.
What distinguishes Grand Canyon from both The Big Chill, which was released eight years prior, and Darling Companion, arriving 21 years later, is an impulse to look beyond the self. Which says something about where Kasdan was at in 1991—in his early forties and worrying over the world he’d bequeathed to his then-teenaged children—as well as about the generation he overtly chronicled. After a Reagan-era session of navel-gazing and kvetching, and before a post-Bush-era focus on the family (in Darling Companion, Kline’s surgeon is shamed for privileging his patients over the lost family dog), boomers confronted a reality that overwhelmed their own egos. It was when the first Gulf War picked at the unhealed scars of Vietnam, when the recent Rodney King beating was about to erupt into the L.A. riots, when a failed economy was set to spur passive liberals into ending 12 years of Republican rule.
“You may not like it, even I may not like it,” Davis says to Mack, continuing his riff about the widening abyss between the haves and have-nots, “but I can’t pretend it isn’t there because that is a lie, and when art lies, it becomes worthless.” By all means, laugh at the triteness and melodramatics of Grand Canyon, at the earnest philosophizing in the face of real tragedy, at the bad haircuts and baggy clothing. But, as period specificity collapses into the nauseating realization that 20 years on, things have only gotten worse, you can’t call it worthless.