'Darling Companion': Kasdan Goes to the Dogs
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Movie lovers of a certain age might remember when writer-director Lawrence Kasdan was considered a mildly edgy filmmaker. This was for about 20 minutes or so, when Kasdan's directorial debut, "Body Heat," added very steamy and arguably (in some circles) unnatural sex acts to a contemporary gloss on "Double Indemnity" and Kasdan the writer was sprucing up old-school tropes for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, contributing to the scripts of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Empire Strikes Back," the two best and most enduring films of their respective franchises. This was back in the early 1980s, and it didn't take long to start suspecting that for all of his literacy and cinematic chops, he was really something of a rank sentimentalist; 1983's "The Big Chill" was still, as you see, the early '80s. Still, it took until 1991's "Grand Canyon" for Kasdan's colors as a very concerned liberal to come out in full bloom.
"Darling Companion" is his first film as a director since 2003's extremely dire "Dreamcatcher," and it's kind of sad. Clearly, Kasdan, here co-writing the script with his wife, Meg Kasdan, wanted to make a movie about getting older and coming to terms with what that does to your personal relationships and your professional relevance/pertinence. This is not an unacceptable theme of itself. When the theme is refracted, however, through the situational lens of high affluence at least bordering on actual wealth, one runs the risk of coming off a little picky, not to necessarily say clueless. Then there's the picture's title hook, if you will; and while I don't doubt Kasdan's love of domesticated animals, hanging your ensemble piece on a group attempt to find a lost dog ... well. In practice here, it's a bit forced.
Diane Keaton plays the frazzled, quick-to-cry wife of super-competent but slightly arrogant spine surgeon Kevin Kline, and one winter afternoon Keaton's character, driving and chatting not entirely idly over finding-a-man-problems with daughter Elisabeth Moss, she rescues a slightly hurt mutt whom she names Freeway, after where the cute dog was found. Several months later, the daughter marries the vet (how about that!) at Keaton and Kline's gorgeous vacation place in the Rockies, but then Freeway gets lost and the lead characters enlist a sister (Dianne Wiest), her less successful but emotionally generous new boyfriend (Richard Jenkins), a younger nephew who's also a doctor (Mark Duplass), and, most oddly, the beautiful Romany housekeeper (Ayelet Zurer) who has psychic visions of Freeway and encourages the put-upon troupe to keep hunting.
Pairing off in varying combinations, they are afforded the occasions to have both Heavy Conversations About Life and Work Out Old Issues and Re-Evaluate What They Are and How They Do Things. For instance, and you wouldn't see this coming from a mile away, nosirreebob, the less successful character played by Jenkins whose idea of opening an "English pub" in Nebraska is laughed off by the more sophisticated characters early on is revealed to be exceptionally empathetic and bright and, damn it, someone who's still holding on to a dream, and hence noble.
Sam Shepard also turns up, and this movie's point is kind of apotheosized by the fact that this onetime icon of boomer cool is playing a near-crotchety sheriff who frequently complains of his kidney stones. "When do they start pushing you out of that deal?" his character asks Kline, who's getting resentful that conventional wisdom is not holding to the idea that spine surgeons age like fine wine.
While it's not entirely lacking in sharp dialogue, Kasdan's movie is weirdly unwieldy (the wedding scene feels oddly truncated, not that I wanted the film to be any longer, and a limited-animated nightmare scene is, while an arguably admirable way around one's budgetary constraints, also a pretty obvious one), and, it almost goes without saying, a bit blinkered.
All of the fine actors do fine enough work that if you're a big fan of any of them, you'll get some pleasure out of the picture (and it speaks well of the respect Kasdan is still held in that indie-regular-guy Duplass actually deigned to comb his hair for this film). But I should emphasize the "big" in "big fan." And if you find the film's love-of-animals angle intriguing, you should be aware that the picture has only about five minutes worth of "lookatdapuppy" and 98 minutes of "lookfordapuppy."
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.