The setting is modern-day Los Angeles.

Kevin Kline is an uptight immigration lawyer at a Lakers game, sitting with a friend, smarmy movie producer Steve Martin, who is accompanied by his latest young conquest.

To try to avoid the tremendous crush of traffic after the game, Kline takes a side road to get to the freeway a little faster. That road leads to another until Kline finds he's in a rough, run-down part of town.

Then, the unthinkable happens. His car breaks down. So, he walks to a pay phone down the street, calls for a tow truck and returns to his car to wait. Naturally, a bunch of tough young thugs pull up and they start giving him a hard time. It isn't long before one of them flashes a handgun.

Fortunately, tow-truck driver Danny Glover shows up in a nick of time and offers assistance. But this isn't "Lethal Weapon" assistance. Glover is just as scared as Kline, yet he soon manages to talk their way out of the situation.

Kline's gratitude begins to run deeper the more he thinks about this incident over the next few days, and he makes an effort to get to know Glover so he can do something for him.

That's the setup, but hardly the only storyline in "Grand Canyon," which is chock full of plot and characters in an ensemble fashion that is bound to be compared to Lawrence Kasdan's other yuppie ensemble headed by Kevin Kline, "The Big Chill."

But it's an unfortunate comparison. There's no lamentation here for an earlier time, or concern about having sold out ideals for establishment profits.

"Grand Canyon" is about coping, not just with life in Los Angeles — but life in general. It's about what the characters refer to as the "small miracles" that happen to us, and how they change us. If they change us.

In that regard, it's more like a Frank Capra movie, as the characters begin to discover just how important other people are in their lives. And how we are sometimes compelled to do something because of circumstances we cannot control.

At one point, Steve Martin's character is struck down by violence and vows to change — not only his life, but the trashy exploitation pictures he makes. It's a wickedly funny portrait of someone so self-absorbed that he has all the wrong kneejerk reactions to what happens to him.

Mary McDonnell (Kevin Costner's love interest in "Dances With Wolves"), in a remarkably understated, touching performance, is Kline's wife, who finds an abandoned baby in the park while she's jogging — and who becomes obsessed with adopting it.

Mary-Louise Parker (who has a starring role in the upcoming "Fried Green Tomatoes") is sad as Kline's secretary, whose love for him is not returned.

Alfre Woodard, who always seems to make something remarkable out of the smallest roles, stands out in a very small part here as a single, working mother whom Kline fixes up with Glover.

And Glover and Kline are excellent, demonstrating their natural rapport with the camera and the audience. It's worth noting that Kline is unafraid here to let his character be a pinhead at times, showing that he is, at best, a flawed hero.

Writer/director Kasdan, whose wife Meg co-wrote the script, has taken some heat from critics who seem to feel "Grand Canyon" is preachy, plot-heavy and contrived. But I found it mesmerizing, from its opening moments to a very risky dream sequence to the denouement, which dares to make literal the title's metaphor.

Kasdan paints a rather bleak picture of the direction the world seems to be taking. But he also suggests the hope for the future lies within each of us, and the little examples in his film illustrate the point very well.

It's true "Grand Canyon" is slick, and it's unfortunate that some elements bring to mind the more gritty "Boyz N the Hood," which treated the dangers of L.A.'s suburbs in a much more starkly realistic manner. And it is talky. But Kasdan's greatest strength has always been his dialogue, and the talk here is well worth listening to.

In addition to "The Big Chill," Kasdan is responsible for "The Accidental Tourist," "Silverado" and "Body Heat."

In my book, "Grand Canyon" ranks right up there with his best.

"Grand Canyon" is rated R for violence, hospital gore, profanity and brief female nudity.