NEW YORK — 'GRAND Canyon" has a guardian angel hovering over its characters. Well, not really an angel - it's a helicopter, probably doing some kind of police job. But there's a touch of mystery to its unexpected appearances in the Los Angeles skies. And when you add this to the mysteries of human nature that the story brings up, you realize the filmmaker's intent is more than just spinning a dramatic yarn.
Set in L. A. about 20 years ago, "Grand Canyon" weaves a number of story lines into its unusual fabric. One centers on Mack and Claire, a middle-class couple who are coping with the empty-nest syndrome in different ways: Mack indulges in an office romance, while Claire dreams of adopting a baby she found abandoned in their neighborhood.
Another main character is Simon, an African-American worker who's helping his sister raise her teenage son amid the dangers and temptations of the inner city. Still another is Davis, a movie producer who specializes in shock and schlock. Subplots concern Dee, the secretary in love with Mack, and her friend Jane, who takes a chance on a blind date with Simon.
The interest of "Grand Canyon" lies mainly in the relationships these people develop with one another. They rarely have any idea why they're behaving as they do, or why their lives are developing in this particular way instead of taking some very different road. Yet the most alert characters come to sense that human experience is much deeper and richer than ordinary human reasoning can fathom - a fact that becomes most clear when they're most involved with one another's hopes and fears.
"Grand Canyon" is a film about the little miracles that can happen when people lift their thoughts a bit beyond their everyday routines. At its best, it stands with the most thoughtful and life-affirming films in recent memory.
Unfortunately, it's not always at its best. The movie takes much too long getting cranked up in the early scenes, and the ending is disappointing - using the real Grand Canyon not as a sign of majesty and transcendence, which the film has broadly hinted at, but as a picture-postcard symbol for nothing more original than everyday optimism.
The picture also flirts with racial insensitivity in an early scene when Mack is menaced by an inner-city gang, and in its breezy assumption that a black teenager will automatically run into drugs and crime while his white counterpart sails past such problems.
When it works, though, "Grand Canyon" has extraordinary power. Chief credit for this goes to the actors - especially Kevin Kline, who contributes a brilliantly understated performance as Mack, and Danny Glover, who gives Simon a wonderful measure of dignity and conviction. Alfre Woodard is marvelously likable as Jane, a secondary but still-essential character, while Mary McDonnell and Mary-Louise Parker work at a more modest level as the women in Mack's life.
Steve Martin is sometimes hilarious as the Hollywood exploitationist who almost changes his life for the better, but his character disappears for such long stretches that it's hard to care very much about him.
"Grand Canyon" was directed by Lawrence Kasdan from a screenplay he wrote with Meg Kasdan, and part of my delight in the movie comes from its superiority to Mr. Kasdan's previous work. While there was some merit in his early "Body Heat," his popular "The Big Chill" has always struck me as wildly overrated and "The Accidental Tourist" as an outright bore.
"Grand Canyon" finds Kasdan in firm control of a restrained and intelligent style. Eliciting first-rate performances from a well-chosen cast, he brings these to the screen with graceful eloquence - giving words as much weight as actions, and turning something as mundane as a driving lesson into a colorful and absorbing adventure. It's a striking achievement from a filmmaker who clearly has much more to give than his past offerings have indicated. Rated R for language.