The business of the movies is to reassure us. The boy eventually gets the girl; the bad guy bites the dust. And maybe Grand Canyon, which ends on a subdued but nevertheless optimistic note, must finally be construed as a conventionally cheering film.
But before it brings most of its principals to the edge of the title gorge, there to commune with a symbol of the timeless universe's indifference to our petty bedevilments, the film accomplishes something remarkable: it forces us to contemplate the fragility of our everyday arrangements, the ease with which brutal chance can void the habits and relationships we count on to give life its continuity. It is hard to think of another American movie that has so directly, even naively, confronted the basic source of our existential unease. Or done so with such easy humor and graceful sentiment.
Grand Canyon's structure is rewardingly complex, intertwining disparate lives that represent a fair cross section of big-city life. The fulcrum character, discovered in a slightly off-center condition, which will get worse before it gets better, is a mildly depressed, mildly humorous man named Mack (Kevin Kline). The process that will force him to higher consciousness begins when his car breaks down in a bad neighborhood and his life is threatened by a menacing gang, then saved by Simon (Danny Glover), a lonely tow-truck operator. The episode is Mack's first lesson in just how tenuous our grip on normality is.
Others quickly follow. Mack's discreet little affair with his secretary (Mary-Louise Parker) threatens to become indiscreet. His best friend, a heedless movie producer (Steve Martin), is permanently crippled in a mugging. His wife Claire (the luminous Mary McDonnell) discovers an abandoned baby on her morning run and, afflicted by empty-nest malaise (their son is growing up), begins a campaign to adopt the foundling. An earthquake thunders through town, a neighbor dies suddenly, and overhead the police helicopters endlessly circle, their probing searchlights constant reminders of disorder and imminent sorrow.
Against which everyone bravely, touchingly, builds his or her none-too- sturdy defenses. Mack, in fact, turns into a benign busybody, trying to pat almost all the lives that touch his into shape. His work comes out a little too neatly, but Kline's performance, like all the others, is engagingly soft- spoken. And well spoken. The screenplay -- by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan -- has a nice, unforced wit, and Lawrence Kasdan's direction has its jagged edges. If sometimes this loose and anecdotal film loses dramatic pace, it always rights itself. And it remains steadily in touch with its best qualities -- generosity, common sense and a mature decency that is neither smug nor sentimental.
By Richard Schickel
THE PRINCE OF TIDES
There's the love story, of course, in which opposites warily circle, passionately and adulterously engage, and ruefully part. Then there's the memory piece, in which a man comes to grips with the dark, dangerous and deeply buried secret of his childhood and by so doing achieves peace and self- reconciliation. There's comedy too: shrewd bumpkin goes to New York City and shows them city slickers a thing or two. Finally, there's a teacher- student relationship that leads to some mutually instructive, emotionally gratifying male bonding.