REVIEW: Diane Keaton Loses Her Dog — and the Plot — in Darling Companion

Movieline Score: 5

There’s too much people and not enough dog in Lawrence Kasdan’s Darling Companion, and even if you prefer people to dogs, that’s a serious problem. It would be bad enough that Kasdan squanders the gifts of two of his lead actors, Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline, in this aimless, tedious and sometimes downright ridiculous comedy-drama about a fractured family brought closer by unusual circumstances. But he does a disservice to an even more striking face: That of a mutt whom Keaton’s character rescues from the edge of the highway, an elegant, spirited creature she dubs — what else? — Freeway.

I had high hopes for Darling Companion in its early moments, particularly a scene in which Keaton’s Beth gives Freeway a bath. She’s just returned from getting him checked out at the vet’s, but hasn’t yet broken the news to her uptight surgeon husband Joseph (Kline) that the dog is going to stay. Watching Keaton as she kneels by the bathtub massaging shampoo into the pup’s fur — the attention clearly sends him straight into seventh heaven — brings with it a certain elemental joy. For this moment at least, Keaton’s expressive radiance has met its match: There’s so much life in both of them that you’d never imagine how far downhill things could go from there.

But boy, do they. Written by Kasdan and his wife, Meg Kasdan, the script for Darling Companion dispatches with the dog early on (temporarily) to clear the way for a picture filled with husband-and-wife squabbling, the constant nattering of annoying future-in-laws, the airing of various neuroses and, I kid you not, heaps of faux-mystic wisdom from a beautiful Romany psychic. This is how it all plays out: As Joseph and Beth are recovering from the wedding of their daughter (Elisabeth Moss) to the vet who treated Freeway after his rescue (Jay Ali), Joseph takes the dog for a walk on a trail near the couple’s rustic-luxe Rocky Mountain retreat (as if we didn’t already have enough reasons to hate them). Freeway spots a deer and takes off in pursuit; distracted by one of his Very Important Surgeon cell-phone calls, Joseph fails to coax the dog back. Spoiler alert: Dog lovers will want to know that Freeway does come back, but not until practically the very last frame of the movie, by which time even his exuberant wagging tail is too late to save it.

Most of Darling Companion is used up in the search for the dog, during which time the poor fellow becomes completely beside the point. Joseph and Beth are forced to get to know their future brother-in-law, Russell (Richard Jenkins), who has greatly charmed his fiancée-to-be, Joseph’s sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest), but who also seems to be a bit of a wheeler-dealer. Meanwhile, Bryan (Mark Duplass), Joseph’s nephew, who also works with him in his surgical practice, becomes entranced with the caretaker of Joseph and Beth’s vacation house, the exotic, with a capital E, Carmen (Ayelet Zurer). Carmen keeps getting psychic visions of Freeway’s whereabouts, and she sends the family out, in various permutations, based on the locations derived from this rather faulty sixth-sense GPS system. And in the end, guess what? Everybody likes and understands one another better, thanks to a lost dog and a Gypsy Mary Poppins.

Darling Companion is all about how we need to keep changing and growing as we get older, which is somewhat ironic considering that as a director, Kasdan seems frozen in time – although we desperately need more movies for grown-ups, lukewarm reheats of The Big Chill aren’t going to do it. Most of a potentially terrific cast is wasted here: Wiest plays the same sweet, neurotic eye-crinkler she’s portrayed so many times she could do it in her sleep. Kline, generally wonderful at playing only semi-likable characters, doesn’t illuminate any corners of Joseph’s personality that might make you feel anything for the guy. Only Keaton, waving her arms and exhorting all those around her to please help her find her dog, makes any sense. Beth’s priorities are unquestionably sound. It’s the movie around her that loses its way.

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