Peter Pan, Get Lost

In the face of The Prince of Tides' rampant emotionalism you have three options: unconditional surrender, grit-your-teeth resistance or some heart-wavering combination of the two. Everything about Barbra Streisand's adaptation of Pat Conroy's popular novel is Hollywood larger-than-life, from the postcard-perfect sunsets to the swelling score to the overripe lyricism of the narration and the overcooked Gothic secret our hero must face.

Sooner or later, however, Streisand's glossy, florid, heartfelt opus will get to you. She knows how to spin a good story, and in Nick Nolte's Tom Wingo she's created a big, complex, unforgettable movie character. Tom, a charming, angry, emotionally crippled Southerner, can't connect to his wife (Blythe Danner), and just the thought of his social-climbing mother (Kate Nelligan) makes his flesh crawl. When his fragile, poet sister (Melinda Dillon) attempts suicide in New York, he rushes to the city to help. There he encounters his sister's psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein (Streisand), and in the guise of serving as his sister's "memory" undergoes his own soul-cleansing therapy, exorcising his family's tragic ghosts-and falling in love with his shrink to boot.

Nolte's astonishing performance is huge in scale yet finely etched: his combination of leonine glamour and naked honesty is a paradigm for the movie at its best. At its silliest, "Prince of Tides" just serves up gift-wrapped movie kitsch. There's a ludicrously phony New York party at which Lowenstein's villainous violinist husband (Jeroen Krabbe) insults Wingo, and the love affair that follows is played out in romantic postures borrowed from "The Way We Were" and Ralph Lauren ads for country chic.

In these gauzy, soft-focused scenes and elsewhere, Streisand's presence on screen is problematic: her self-consciousness makes it hard to accept Lowenstein as Lowenstein; she's always Streisand. It's easy to pick on the producer/director/star, yet her film about forgiveness ultimately earns ours: Streisand's empathy for the characters is bighearted and contagious. "Prince of Tides" may be a guilty pleasure, but it's a pleasure nonetheless.

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The year started with Steve Martin's intoxicated valentine to the City of the Angels, "L.A. Story," and it closes with Lawrence Kasdan's ambitious Grand Canyon (which features Martin), a troubled, edgy vision of Los Angeles as a city of fear, paranoia, random violence, social inequity, traffic jams and earthquakes. Kasdan's sprawling movie, co-written with his wife, Meg Kasdan, is attuned to the jittery Zeitgeist, and any rattled urban dweller will find something in it that hits close to home.

It begins with a Yuppie immigration lawyer, Mack (Kevin Kline), menaced by young black hoods when his car breaks down (shades of "Bonfire of the Vanities") and follows with an avalanche of catastrophes meant to illustrate the precariousness of life in the Big City. Mack is saved by a tow-truck driver, Simon (Danny Glover), whose sister's house is riddled with bullets from a gang drive-by shooting. Martin, a fatuous producer of ultraviolent Hollywood movies, gets shot in the thigh by a crazed thief. Mack's wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), finds an abandoned baby in the bushes while jogging in Brentwood. About to lose her own teenage son (Jeremy Sisto) to adulthood, she decides to adopt it. "Grand Canyon" attempts to deal with marital midlife crisis, interracial friendships (Mack's and Simon's lives interweave), inner-city gangs, the loneliness of single women (Mack has a one-night stand with his neurotic, adoring secretary, Mary-Louise Parker), even, through the Martin character, the question of Hollywood's social responsibility.

"Everything seems so close together ... all the good and bad things," McDonnell says, and she could be talking about this unsettling movie itself, which is alternately tense and sententious, witty and sanctimonious, powerful and irritating. Kasdan ("The Big Chill...... The Accidental Tourist") is a talented anomaly--a personal filmmaker without a strong personality. It seems apt that Kevin Kline is his star of choice: Kline can be a brilliant clown, but as a leading man he's oddly colorless, a handsome mannequin who radiates little more than guarded irony.

For all the vital issues "Grand Canyon" raises, the film has a strange unreality: it never feels lived in. Why are Kline and Martin best friends? Why does this immigration lawyer live so high on the hog? Is McDonnell's character a saint or a space cadet? Who has ever met a tow-truck driver who waxes as philosophical as Glover's Simon? There's some fine acting here: Alfre Woodard sizzles in her small role as Simon's girlfriend, and Parker is amusingly wretched. Glover is such a powerful presence he almost makes you believe in his gentle giant.

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But Kasdan's earnest, apolitical "thirtysomething" sensibility can take us only so far, offering vague cosmic notions of the ,'miracles" of daily life that are supposed to see us through these troubled times. "Grand Canyon" feels like the work of a good man, a citizen concerned for a society he sees going to the dogs. But concern doesn't necessarily translate into good art. Kasdan's movie doesn't succeed, but see it: it's the season's most fascinating failure.

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