Grand Canyon Review

One night after a Lakers basketball game, Mack (Kevin Kline) aims to take a short-cut to avoid traffic on the way home. His car however, ends up breaking down in a dangerous black ghetto area of Los Angeles. Soon, he is angrily confronted by a gang of black youths, until a black tow truck driver named Simon (Danny Glover) arrives and manages to talk the gang out of causing trouble. This incident leads Mack and Simon to become friends, due mainly to Mack's insistence of their friendship based on the life-changing moment Simon has given to him. Soon, other characters in Grand Canyon have life-changing moments. Mack's wife Claire (Mary McDonnell) who finds an abandoned baby that triggers a longing for motherhood, or their friend Davis (Steve Martin) who has a Hollywood career making silly action films until he is shot in the leg by a mugger. Grand Canyon aims to convey the message that sometimes life requires straying from the norm; for these lapses in conventionality are what fuel the miracles of society. This is a rather promising message, but unfortunately the film falls flat on its delivery, and becomes an embarrassing attempt at showing how whites and blacks can be united with mere random acts of goodwill.

Grand Canyon has the best of intentions but unfortunately isn't quite as successful a film that it thinks it is. If anything, the film is nothing but a signification of how director Lawrence Kasdan left the success of the eighties (in which he gave us Body Heat and The Big Chill amongst others) behind for nineties efforts that lacked credibility or edge. It's possible that the film's shortcomings are due to the script being full to the brim with clichés, or maybe it's because the good cast ensemble lack proper direction, but Grand Canyon smells of a film that tries to hard to be an Oscar-Winning-Classic, and ends up lacking any fluid continuity and a proper narrative focus. It doesn't help that Kasdan is trying his best to construct multi-narratives, because his directing style seems intent on showing off the more 'quotable' lines of dialogue from his script, thereby weakening the dramatic thrust of the film. Essentially, the film feels like a battle between Kasdan's screenplay and his directing style, as if Kasdan schizophrenically is unable to give equal balance to the two departments. Also, you cannot help but sense that the film's dealings with racial problems, particularly the issues of the black ghettos, are melodramatic and stereotypical in their depiction.

This is a pity, as the all-star cast performs admirably. Kevin Kline steps into his usual middle-class white-collar role comfortably, and Mary McDonnell suits him as the determined wife. The two strongest roles in the film belong to Danny Glover, as the integrity-filled Simon, and Steve Martin, as the wisecracking philosophical filmmaker Davis. They elevate the film to a respectable level, even if the film fails to hit many of its targets.

The musical score by James Newton Howard is decidedly early nineties in style, and despite sounding slightly dated in aesthetic quality still manages to corroborate the film's notion of urban unease. The cinematography by Owen Roizman bristles with the social tensions of the cityscape of the film, and it’s a credit to Lawrence Kasdan that he at least knows how to fully exploit such fantastic imagery.

In Kasdan's earlier Big Chill, there was something earnestly appealing about a group of Woodstock-generation friends struggling to grow old and exist in Republican-Eighties-America. The dialogue never felt like dialogue, and the anxieties of the various characters exhibited in the film were easily identifiable for any audience. In Grand Canyon, Kasdan throws out the identifying traces and replaces them with spiritual mumbo-jumbo that could rival Steve Martin's own LA Story for absurdity. Many critics at the time of the film championed its optimistic approach to the inner-city problems that were making people holler, and yet more than ten years later the film feels as if every layer of relevance has been stripped.

Yes, this review has been overly harsh on Grand Canyon, but how is it possible to not be harsh to a film that appears more dated than two of the director's earlier efforts? Kasdan wastes a good cast, and suggests in a textbook fashion how a director gradually loses his edge. The Oscars academy honoured the screenplay with a nomination, but this was politically motivated as Grand Canyon's racial-groups-in-unison subtext pressed all of the right PC buttons.

Grand Canyon still manages to entertain, but carries with it pretentious amount of worthiness that detracts from the overall level of quality. The ending alone tries so desperately to win your heart that you feel like you have to like it just for trying that hard, and yet fortunately you still manage to resist. Despite its sickly-sweet spiritual message, the film will leave most wanting in the twenty-first century, and does nothing for Lawrence Kasdan's career. Maybe he should have stuck to writing for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series of films.

Academy Awards 1991

Academy Award Nominations 1991
Best Original Screenplay - Lawrence Kasdan, Meg Kasdan

Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the transfer of Grand Canyon is mostly good in terms of picture clarity and colour tones. The occasional artefact rears its head, and some grain can be detected in the more dark and contrasting scenes, but on the whole this is a fine transfer that complements the film splendidly.

Presented in Dolby Surround stereo, the sound mix is mostly very balanced with a good central well for dialogue and ambient and background effects treated with decent spatial channelling. Although the mix hasn't been upgraded to 5.1, it still contains good surround elements and a decent left/right contrast.

Menu: A static and minimalist menu that is boring to interact with but is stylish in design.

Packaging: The usual transparent Fox amaray with chapter listings printed on the reverse of the inlay card.


Featurette: A five minute promotional featurette that doesn't really add anything to the mix of the film other than a few brief interview clips and some behind-the-scenes footage. Considering the good documentary that was featured on The Big Chill, this is a disappointing extra.

Trailer: The trailer for the film, which gives Grand Canyon an added touch of schmaltz and a thin summary of the plot.


Because of the very sparse amount of extras, this is the sort of DVD that fans of the film will only want to buy, as many casual onlookers will be happy for a single viewing and will have no desire to own this film. The picture and sound quality are fine, but Grand Canyon itself struggles to contend with the big guns of Hollywood classics.

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