Monday, September 10, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray: Banal "Darling Companion" a real mutt

Darling Companion (2012)
103 min., rated PG-13.

It's always nice to see a film about characters in their 60s, made by filmmakers in their 60s, but writer-director Lawrence Kasdan's (1981's "Body Heat," 1983's "The Big Chill," and 1991's "Grand Canyon") latest isn't quite a return to form after his nine-year hiatus. Co-writen by Kasdan and his wife Meg, "Darling Companion" is a square, banal slice-of-yuppie-life, akin to a Hallmark Channel Original Movie, that will hardly matter as a blip on the once-revered filmmaker's filmography in years to come. Obviously, Kasdan is capable of much better than this misfire, but then again, he was responsible for 2003's messy "Dreamcatcher."

Beth Winter (Diane Keaton) is experiencing empty nest syndrome, as her one daughter (Lindsay Sloane) lives in New York City with her baby son and her youngest daughter Grace (Elizabeth Moss) going back to school. Her life in Colorado with her husband Joseph (Kevin Kline), a self-absorbed spinal surgeon, is unfulfilling. On the way home from the airport, Beth and Grace rescue a collie mutt on the side of the freeway. You'll never guess why, but they call him Freeway. Though Joseph is hesitant at first, the Winters end up keeping Freeway. A year later at "Beth and Joseph's vacation home in the Rockies" (which is actually spelled out in text) for Grace's wedding with the mutt's veternarian, Freeway chases a deer and runs away under Joseph's watch. Beth is immediately crushed and angry at Joseph. Luckily, she has family still gathering at their house to come along on the doghunt: Joseph's divorced sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest); her new head-in-the-clouds boyfriend, Russell (Richard Jenkins); and Penny's surgeon son, Bryan (Mark Duplass), who works with his uncle. Even the Winters' caretaker, Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), who claims to be a Roman gypsy psychic, gives Beth hope.

By the time these one-percenters split up in the mountains (Russell and Bryan run away from a hostile, dog-hoarding mountain man in a Harvard sweatshirt and Joseph barks at a couple of rams), "Darling Companion" loses its way and does a lot of wandering until Lassie, er, Freeway comes home. Dog lovers should know this is no 1993's "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey," 2008's "Marley & Me," or 2009's "Hachi: A Dog's Tale" (which inscrutably never saw a U.S. theatrical release but will make you cry buckets). Here, the dog is barely present for much of the movie, but by default, we care about the harmless Freeway and beg him to be alive by the final frame. Otherwise, it's hard to feel the ties that bind all of the human characters; few of these privileged yuppies are interesting enough to relate to or care about. Beth overreacts, Joseph underreacts, and their soul-searching crises feel obligatory rather than organic.

Rather than letting us infer on our own that Freeway really is a part of the family, Kasdan insists on playing the on-the-nose country song called "Darling Companion" through Grace's nuptials. Then, to show Beth's deep sense of loss in her dog's absence, there's an unnecessary, oddly animated dream sequence, just in case we forgot Beth misses her darling companion. Finally in the climax, for some final broad, off-base slapstick, Beth spots Freeway in a field on their flight back home, so one of them fakes a heart attack to reroute the plane. Really?

With a marquee cast, all dressed in L.L. Bean's wardrobe, that includes Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Elizabeth Moss, and Sam Shepard, how could it possibly miss? The fact that they all show up makes "Darling Companion" even more dishearting because the material isn't really there and their interplay isn't up to snuff on the sharpness scale. Kline and Keaton make us believe they are a married couple out of alignment; his acidic sarcasm is a relief and she mostly keeps Beth's shrill overacting in check. Moss gets the snappiest lines in the Kasdans' dialogue, but alas, her character gets sent packing on her honeymoon in Bora Bora for the bulk of the story.

"Darling Companion" should have been a charming winner, but it's just a cozy trifle that tries so hard to do no harm and not offend. In doing so, the film shoots itself in the foot and leaves our tear ducts dry. It'd be more difficult to dislike if it weren't so inconsequential with its schmaltzy "is-that-all-there-is?" finale. What a mutt of a movie.

Grade: C - 

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