A tale of love lost and redeemed in the wake of a stray dog’s adoption, “Darling Companion” arrives with a commendable pedigree. But despite an intriguing premise, a marquee middle-aged cast and a veteran helmer (Lawrence Kasdan) schooled in character-driven ensemble movies, the result is more shaggy-dog story than incisive reflection on human relationships; absent the zeitgeist-tapping resonance of Kasdan’s earlier films, it meanders about as much as its eponymous pooch. Sony Classics release, planned for April, may offer mild theatrical appeal, but it won’t be long before this one turns up at the Netflix pound.
It was a generation ago that Kasdan probed the uneasy currents swirling about a disparate group of Angelenos in “Grand Canyon,” and another decade before that when he ushered in “The Big Chill”; in both films, as well as in his 1988 adaptation of “The Accidental Tourist,” a brush with mortality prompts key characters to re-examine their own lives and realign their priorities. Despite a propensity for talkiness that sometimes played as self-indulgence, these were undeniably watchable, at times laceratingly funny movies that seemed to articulate precisely the angst, hope and confusion of their moment.
“Darling Companion” finds Kasdan working with a pair of familiar collaborators. It reteams the “Grand Canyon” writing team of Kasdan and his wife, Meg, and that film’s lead thesp, Kevin Kline, reunites with Kasdan for their sixth collaboration. Here the actor plays self-involved surgeon Joseph Winter, too busy to notice the loneliness engulfing his wife, Beth (Diane Keaton).
Driving with her daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss) one day, Beth impulsively decides to rescue a stray dog. After taking the hound to the veterinarian (a charming but underutilized Jay Ali), Beth cements her bond with the dog, dubbed Freeway. Over Joseph’s objections, Beth decides to keep him. Freeway warms Beth’s spirits, begins to melts Joseph’s icy demeanor, and proves his capacity as a canine matchmaker when Grace falls for the vet.
Cut to a year later, immediately following nuptials at the family vacation home in Telluride (Park City standing in). Rather hurriedly, Kasdan introduces a gaggle of relatives on their way out of town. Staying behind are Joseph’s sister Penny (Dianne Wiest); her new beau, Russell (Richard Jenkins); and Penny’s overly serious doctor son, Bryan (Mark Duplass). During a leaden, protracted conversation that slows the proceedings almost to a halt, Penny announces her plans to open a pub with Russell. Bryan is appalled at the prospect of something so outre: He has yet to have his eyes opened by his eventual love interest, the exotic, vaguely mysterious groundskeeper Carmen (Ayelet Zurer).
When Joseph becomes distracted by a phone call during a walk with Freeway, the dog disappears. Furious, Beth sees the lapse as further proof of Joseph’s narcissism. Thus begins a massive hunt for the dog amid the uneven terrain and fading light of the Rocky Mountains.
Once things move outdoors, the film starts to gather momentum and finally reveal character more naturalistically. Crosscutting among the different search parties, Kasdan uses the inherent suspense of Freeway’s disappearance to reveal hidden vulnerabilities and past resentments. Alas, the action moves in fits and starts, as their encounters with locals (a cryptic redhead, a reclusive mountain man, a no-nonsense sheriff played by Sam Shepard) yield only red herrings and disruptions. Several extraneous scenes could have been excised.
It’s not hard to spot the metaphors in “Darling Companion,” sometimes so literally dramatized as to strain toward the obvious. Carmen’s observation, for instance, that Beth and Joseph are “out of alignment” sets up the scene where Joseph finds himself with a dislocated shoulder that Beth is obliged to repair.
It’s always a pleasure to watch actors as fine as Keaton, Kline, Wiest and Jenkins plying their craft, even as it disappoints to see them underserved by a script that doesn’t optimize their talents. Still, production values are fine, in particular Michael McDonough’s lensing (via the Red One camera) and Dina Goldman’s production design, both of which evoke the best aspects of the Utah locations.