Grand Canyon (which you can stream now on HBO Max) opened in theaters in December of 1991, and when its writer/director, Lawrence Kasdan, was asked by The Baltimore Sun what kind of story he wanted to tell with his film, his answer was: “[It’s about] trying to create some order in a chaotic universe, and how people struggle to do that…There’s some confusion about why are we here, why is [life] so short, why do people act badly toward each other? Is there any hope? The world is chaotic and people are frightened by it…It’s about the fact that we’re all in this together, and your circumstances may be a little more comfortable than someone else’s, but if people are suffering or in despair in this society, it will ultimately affect you, too. You can’t insulate yourself.”
All of which is very true, very intense, and very timeless. But Grand Canyon is also a film that shows a father trying to show his son that “making a left turn in LA is one of the harder things” you can learn in life. For those who live there, the very thought of this will make you laugh while also shaking your head because such dread also feels intensely familiar. And it’s that exact response that audiences come to know all too well when sitting down to watch a dramedy like Grand Canyon, which has mostly been forgotten since its theatrical release, but which is still deserving of appreciation.
Kasdan also co-wrote and directed the classic ‘80s dramedy The Big Chill, which had a soundtrack of classic R&B/soul songs to help put the audience at ease as they watched the characters deal with heavy subject matter. But Kasdan wasn’t interested in telling another story where the characters get together to sing and dance along to The Temptations.
Grand Canyon is a film that constantly reminds its viewers of one thing when it comes to Los Angeles: it can be ruthless and unpredictable, and your survival can depend on the decisions you make within a split second. Witness Davis (Steve Martin), a famous movie producer with a planet-sized ego about himself and his career that makes him think that he’s bulletproof. That belief is severely tested when he is robbed at gunpoint and shot in the leg, and the resulting scene that shows us his reaction to getting shot, and the physical damage being repaired by a surgical team. Even now, it’s shocking and disturbing to watch.
If we saw this happen to any other character played by any other actor in Grand Canyon, it would be unsettling. But for viewers to see this happen to a character played by Martin, the legendary comic actor who was also appearing on screens as the stressed-out dad in Father Of The Bride at the same time (the two films opened a week apart) is particularly jarring. It’s also a sign that this film was going to grab us by the shoulders to make us pay attention to what it had to say.
Grand Canyon is about people reaching out to help others in ways that are both great and small when they see that the world is being ruthless and unpredictable. Whether it’s Simon (Danny Glover) helping Mack (Kevin Kline) when his car breaks down and he’s in mortal danger from a group of gangbangers, Claire (Mack’s wife, played by Mary McDonell) wanting to adopt a baby she finds while jogging (to help her deal with her empty nest syndrome), or Roberto (Mack and Claire’s teenage son, played by Jeremy Sisto) helping a bullied little boy at camp who is lonely and homesick.
Much of the dialogue could easily come across as mawkish. If Kasdan were a less talented writer with a less talented cast, this would feel like a poorly-made Very Special Episode. Fortunately, for Kasdan and for the audience, that isn’t the case, and Grand Canyon refuses to shy away from the sincerity of its story. None of these people are naïve when it comes to how Los Angeles and the rest of the world works (Davis being the exception to that rule). But they all end up facing the choice of doing something to try and make things better or doing nothing at all. And for many of them, standing idly by just isn’t a possibility (though, true to life, some of those actions don’t stick, as with Davis, whose decision to leave violent action films behind proves short-lived).
Four months after the release of Grand Canyon, Los Angeles was torn apart by riots, which occurred as a result of the Not Guilty verdict for the four LAPD officers who were seen on videotape viciously beating Rodney King. The riots lasted for nearly a week, leaving sixty-three people dead, and thousands of people injured, including White truck driver Reginald Denny, whose own beating was caught on video as he was pulled out of his vehicle and nearly beaten to death by several rioters. It brought greater attention to the tension that existed between Black people and the LAPD. The film makes the difference very clear in how much calmer and reassuring the police presence is for Dee (Mary Louise Parker, who plays Mack’s assistant) when dealing with a man who breaks her car window with a hammer before running off, as opposed to how Simon’s nephew Otis (Patrick Malone) is stopped by the police at gunpoint for simply running in his new neighborhood.
In the years since its release, many articles have pointed out how Grand Canyon was not just a portrait of what Los Angeles was like in the early Nineties, but also a warning sign of what was to come if its residents didn’t say or do anything to make changes for the better.
Grand Canyon isn’t the first multi-character dramedy to deal with social issues within a large metropolis, though it did help make it possible for other films like Short Cuts and Magnolia to follow in its footsteps during that same decade. But it’s become a dying breed.
In 1975, Jaws ushered in the still-thriving era of blockbuster films that is now reflected in the overwhelming success of comic-book movies today. But there still remains the need to see regular characters on the big screen who aren’t superheroes figuring out how to make their way through life. People who are trying to deal with the world around them without gunfights or explosions or becoming unlikeable antiheroes as a result. Stories like that will always be of importance, but they need to be made and displayed.
It’s nice to laugh at situations that you recognize and can relate to. It helps you feel as though you’re not alone when it comes to being concerned about the future and about the world that you live in and that your children will inherit. It’s nice to be reminded that it’s possible to care about and show concern for real people around us, especially after so much time spent in lockdown during a pandemic when empathy became a harder and harder thing to locate sometimes. Imagine all of that on a big screen and all that entails. Cutting through the noise of streaming and allowing us a shared experience as we laugh, gasp, cry, and reflect together on the simple lessons art can offer and how impactful it can be when broadly made available. Which takes us back to Grand Canyon and its own conclusion.
As Mack and Simon are chatting over breakfast during one scene, Simon tells Mack that even though good things can happen to people, terrible things are guaranteed to happen to them as well. By the end of the film, when Simon, Mack, and all of their loved ones are standing with one another as they look out into the actual Grand Canyon (even Otis seems reluctant about being there, but he can’t help but join everyone else at looking in awe at what’s before him), Simon asks Mack what he thinks of it, as this is his first time there.
Mack’s answer: “I think it’s not all bad.”
And it’s something that could be said by almost all of the main characters in Grand Canyon, despite how much life keeps testing them when it comes to the city of Los Angeles, the city that they call home.
“I think it’s not all bad.”