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What In the World Happened to Lawrence Kasdan?

Here’s what’s making me nervous about Darling Companion, Lawrence Kasdan‘s first new movie in nine years:

Kevin Kline‘s triple-arched eyebrows. Characters who are “finding themselves and their own bearings.” Diane Keaton acting fragile ‘n frantic. Jokey comedy mixed with life lessons. The name Darling Companion. Lawrence Kasdan. Lawrence Kasdan. Lawrence Kasdan.

Yes, Lawrence Kasdan is worrying me most. How did we get here?

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

30 years ago, Lawrence Kasdan was the Babe Ruth of screenwriting. He hit homers to all fields. He wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back.  He wrote and directed Body Heat, the film noir that gave Kathleen Turner to the world.  He wrote and directed The Big Chill, which was (for its time) a really groundbreaking ensemble movie packed with charming, bright, funny characters.

Kasdan was prolific: he wrote The Bodyguard as a vehicle for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross in the 1970s, only to see the screenplay sit on a shelf until Kevin Costner resurrected it in the 1990s with Whitney Houston — and it was still a big hit. He wrote Return of the Jedi. He wrote Continental Divide, the only movie to ever make John Belushi seem really human. (That script was why George Lucas and Steven Spielberg hired him to write Raiders.)

In short, in a half-dozen years Kasdan wrote more hit movies than 99% of all screenwriters who’ve ever lived or ever will live. At the end of that run, the success of The Big Chill (1983) pushed Kasdan into a new orbit of heroic writer-director stardom.

And then… it all went poof.  The turning point was Silverado in 1985, which was supposed to be a daring leap — the first non-ironic Western in years! — but turned out to be a tepid drama with actors who just plain didn’t look comfortable.

Kasdan followed Silverado with The Accidental Tourist, which won an Oscar for Geena Davis, and was nominated as best picture and best adapted screenplay. But his canvas was already shrinking.

I Love You To Death had Kevin Kline as a womanizer with an Italian accent and a skeevy moustache. (It earned a remarkable D+ from Entertainment Weekly, never a tough grader.)

Grand Canyon was just a terribly boring movie, with that deadly-earnest duo of Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard and a deadly-earnest message of racial harmony, human frailty and can’t-we-all-get-along.  (“Grand Canyon isn’t really about anything and its whole point is that it’s about everything,” wrote Louis Black in the Austin Chronicle, and more damning words were never written.)

Wyatt Earp was a three-hour attempt to delve into the human frailties of the gunslinger of the OK Corral. It fared badly next to Tombstone, released the same year. (That was a shocker: Lawrence Kasdan getting beat head-to-head at his own game.)

French Kiss was a dopey rom-com that helped kill Meg Ryan‘s career. Mumford was a featherweight comedy. (“Kasdan assiduously works the middle ground, where he’s most content,” wrote Peter Rainer.) Dreamcatcher (2003) was a sci-fi/horror mashup that flopped. I’d never even heard of it until now. Roger Ebert said it begins well but “ends as a monster movie of stunning awfulness.”

That was nine years ago. Kasdan’s last three film releases were in 2003, 1999 and 1995 — three movies in 17 years. Even Terrence Malick cranks ’em out faster than that, and that’s saying something.

But it’s not even a matter of quantity. The real question is, why is Lawrence Kasdan making the movies he does make? In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, Kasdan said that making terrific films is what he always wanted to do:

Seeing “The Great Escape,” seeing “Magnificent Seven” and then, when I was 14 years old, I saw “Lawrence of Arabia” and it overwhelmed me, it overwhelmed me. I was astounded that a human being, David Lean, had been able to marshal all those forces to tell a story that touched me, a kid from West Virginia.

…The majesty of the thing just lifted me out of my seat and yet the detail about what his life was like and the decisions he made. So I thought, oh, my God, movies can do anything and that’s what I want to do. I want to try to make those movies.

And for awhile, he did. This is a writer who used to toss off a dozen great movie-movie moments in every single film. Indiana Jones and his whip. Dancing in the kitchen for The Big Chill.

But since The Big Chill he hasn’t written a single memorable, exciting or dashing movie moment. Not one! Three decades of movie-making and not one moment that will ever be shown in any festival or nostalgic Oscar clip. (Oh, you can count Costner carrying Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard if you like. But Kasdan wrote it in the ’70s.)

To put it another way: How is the guy who wrote some of the most passionate, funny and romantic scenes of the 20th century now content with Kevin Kline on his hands and knees, pretend-barking at goats? Can anyone so talented really lose their edge so completely?

It is a head-scratcher.

Variety suggested in 2008 that Kasdan was one of many veteran directors who “find themselves on the outside looking in” because they just haven’t adapted to today’s ADHD studio execs:

“When they aren’t being paid top dollar for scripts-for-hire, Robert Towne (“Personal Best”) and Kasdan are pitching arcane movies that nobody, studio or independent, wants to make.”

Mmmmaybe. Hey, nobody holds it against Kasdan if he doesn’t want to give in and make The Big Chill 2, with everyone reuniting for the gay wedding of Mary Kay Place‘s daughter and smoking weed and getting giggly and having comical Mature Sex in the church closets. And if Kasdan doesn’t feel compelled to write adventure movies or big-budget dramas in general, you can’t blame him for not wanting it.

But: Why does he want what he does want? If “movies can do anything,” why have them do this? Why the modest flicks that peck feebly at the onionskin of the human condition? (“Tasteful claustrophobia,” critic Owen Gleiberman once called it.)

Does anybody really go to the movies to see bonds of friendship renewed? Have they ever? Was that ever the basis of a movie with Steve McQueen or Clark Gable? Or by David Lean or Akira Kurosawa? The movies that Kasdan says moved him to be a director?

It’s easy to see how Darling Companion is the movie Kasdan could get made: “You got a dog in it? Green light!” But it’s not so encouraging to read that Kasdan co-wrote the movie with his wife Meg, based on their own experience of losing a dog in the Rockies. Or that Kasdan’s wife’s sister once found a stray dog by the freeway, just like in the movie, and named it Freeway, just like in the movie.

If Raiders of the Lost Ark had been based on real-life stuff that happened to Kasdan’s sister-in-law, Indiana Jones might have been a slightly duller character. I’m not saying that for sure, you know, just speculating.

(You also wonder if Sony Classics isn’t feeling like Kasdan pulled a bait-and-switch on them: “Larry, you promised us a dog movie, and this is just a lot of old people talking about their feelings.”)

Sony Pictures ClassicsSony Pictures Classics

Look, I’m not knocking Kasdan’s wonderfully stable marriage (since 1971!) or his sister-in-law, or dogs, or old people. Or feelings. But what we want from the movies is heightened reality, not tightened reality. “Life with the dull bits cut out” is how Alfred Hitchcock once described movie storytelling. Kasdan seems to want the dull bits with the life cut out. Why? Why? Why?

You want to shake him and tell him: Mr. Kasdan, we’ve already got Garry Marshall. We’ve got Nancy Meyers. They’re on the bland stuff. They’re writing the rom-coms for old people. You’re free! You’re free to write the great entertainments you used to write!

But alas, he doesn’t want to go there.

Darling Companion is clearly where Kasdan does want to go. He calls it “one of the most gratifying filmmaking experiences I’ve ever had.” It was low-low-budget. The entire cast and crew worked for scale, say the production notes, marking it as a badge of honor.

Maybe it will be fantastic. We can hope.

More likely we’ll just have to shrug and move on. Lawrence Kasdan will never thrill or delight us again, and he doesn’t want to. He only wants to share talky, talky insights about our common insecurities.

Babe Ruth doesn’t swing for the fences any more. He doesn’t want to brawl, drink beer, chase women, or eat six hot dogs between innings. He has taken up needlepoint.

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