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A perilous journey into urban 'Canyon'

LOS ANGELES -- It happened several years ago. Larry Kasdan was standing on a street corner, and he stepped off the curb and then a woman grabbed him by the collar and yanked him back toward her, and just then a big city bus thundered past, going fast.

"There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the bus would have killed or critically injured me," Kasdan was saying the other day. He was sitting in one of those sunny Los Angeles restaurants where all seems serene, and unspeakable things like death and disability are a million miles away. But they are not. They are right outside the door, or around the corner, or next year, or eventually. Nobody gets out alive.

"The light changed," Kasdan remembered, "and we all started walking across the street. I turned to the woman who had pulled me back onto the curb, and I thanked her. I will always remember what she said: My pleasure. Then she was gone.

"A thousand times since that day, I have thought that I should have hurried to catch up with her, to say to her, Look, what you just did changed the whole history of my life. If you had not reached out exactly when you did, I might easily have been dead, or a vegetable, or in some way my whole remaining lifetime would have been very different. It wouldn't have been so much to thank her as to acknowledge the role she played in my fate."

He did not, however, catch up with her and make that speech, and the woman disappeared forever into the sea of humanity, perhaps to one day have her life saved by another stranger. And now "Grand Canyon," Kasdan's new film, makes amends for his silence. It is the story about a man something like Kasdan, who does reach out to a stranger who has altered the course of his life.

"Grand Canyon," which is a leading candidate in several categories for this year's Academy Awards, takes place in a Los Angeles where invisible walls have been built between poverty and affluence, between safety and danger, between human beings. There is the sense that people rarely meet anyone out of their immediate social or business circles, because of a fearful apartheid of the spirit. Urban violence keeps them crouched inside their compounds - the poor as well as the rich, the black as well as the white - and yet in "Grand Canyon" it is the danger in the city that paradoxically shakes people up and renews them.

Kasdan and his wife, Meg, wrote a screenplay that starts with a version of that experience he had on the street corner: A successful businessman (Kevin Kline), driving home from a Lakers game, ventures into the "wrong" neighborhood, has car trouble, and then finds his stalled auto surrounded by a gang of young black men who want to harass him, steal from him and possibly kill him. Just in time, the tow truck arrives, driven by a street-smart man (Danny Glover) who sizes up the situation and defuses it with some very carefully chosen words.

Kline does not want to allow Glover to disappear back into the city. He seeks him out, they talk, and Kline makes a deliberate effort to thank Glover. Glover himself is considerably less impressed by what happened ("Look, man, don't assume I saved your life. You might have got your wallet lifted, but they probably wouldn't have killed you.") But Kline finds a new apartment for Glover's sister, whose house has just been machinegunned by gang members angry with her son. And later he fixes up Glover with a single woman (Alfre Woodard) whom he meets at work ("We're probably the only two black people he knows," she giggles).

At home, Kline finds that another life-changing coincidence has happened. His wife (played by Mary McDonnell of "Dances with Wolves") has discovered a baby while out jogging, and believes God chose her to raise that baby. Kline is less than thrilled at the prospect of an infant in the house; their only son is just old enough to go off to school. But his attitude has undergone a fundamental change after the life-threatening experience, and now he re-evaluates everything according to a reawakened moral code.

His change of heart is mirrored, to more comic effect, in the fervent resolutions of a friend (Steve Martin), who has made millions by producing violent action extravaganzas, but now knows what real pain feels like after being shot in the leg by a mugger.

"I can no longer devote my life to degrading audiences with cynical images of violence," he declares, although whether his new resolve will survive his first financial crisis remains to be seen. For the Kasdans, "Grand Canyon" sums up many of the things they have been thinking about life in a big American city. The sense of danger is always there - sometimes more perceived than real - but even worse, he says, is the "self-imposed exile of people who have become afraid to talk to strangers, or meet anyone who they don't encounter in their own small worlds."

Kasdan's career as a writer and director shows an impulse toward thoughtful films about the inevitability of death and its impact on the living. Yet there is another side to his career that has produced wild commercial success with big-budget audience pleasers. It is hard to believe that the same man wrote "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and two of the "Star Wars" movies, wrote and directed the steamy film noir "Body Heat," and yet has also directed the thoughtful, introspective films "The Big Chill" and "The Accidental Tourist." 

Both of those films dealt with characters forced to evaluate their own lives after the fact of death enters into them. In the first, a group of old college chums assemble after the premature death of a friend. In the second, a travel writer and his wife, already estranged, try to deal with the loss of a child. In "Grand Canyon," however, the characters get a pass: Death brushes past them, but does not stop, and it serves an awakening function. Newly aware of the daily gift of life, they have to decide how to use it.

I told Kasdan I had seen "Grand Canyon" just a few days after seeing "The Last Boy Scout," a particularly raw action picture produced by Joel Silver, a master of the genre. I had admired the craft of "The Last Boy Scout," had been forced to admit the movie worked on its chosen level and supplied the audience with the entertainment it was seeking, and yet I felt uncomfortable while watching the film, especially during a scene where the 13-year-old daughter of the Bruce Willis character joins her father in trading obscenities that would have gotten them both arrested a few decades ago.

It's almost as if the movies are chipping away at the remnants of decency in public decorum. I support free speech without equivocation, but when I look at inconsequential entertainment like "The Last Boy Scout," I ask what purpose is served by a film in which children are provided with obscenities for their dialogue.

These thoughts were forming in my mind when I saw "Grand Canyon," which is a serious, decent, grownup film about good people who are awakened from the reverie of consumerism. In the Steve Martin speech, the Kasdans all but declare war on Joel Silver and the other wholesalers of violent mass-market depravity. Yet Kasdan says that wasn't his primary intention.

"This isn't a movie about Hollywood as an industry," Kasdan said. "It's about a lot of the things that were on our minds. Ever since that woman pulled me back from the curb, I have had this recurring thought that I am living on borrowed time. That if the bus didn't hit me, there must have been a reason, and it is up to me to find the reason. It is possible for good things to happen in life, but you have to do something about it. They don't simply occur because it would be a nice idea."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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