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Darling Companion

A movie that chases its tail

Darling Companion

Among the several inadequately realized elements in Lawrence and Meg Kasdan’s amiably shambling comedy, Darling Companion, is the performance of one of the cast, a performer with whose work I wasn’t previously familiar. Kasey, who uses only one name professionally, in the distinguished tradition of such luminaries as Arletty, Capucine, Fabian, and Madonna, plays Freeway, a pivotal character whose disappearance early in the picture precipitates what little narrative development Darling Companion contains. In his limited screen time, Kasey gives the most earnest and effective performances in the movie. Of course, as a seven-year-old mixed-breed collie shepherd, it might be said that he’s been typecast, but I prefer to regard his selection by the filmmakers as fortuitously apt. Kasey delivers.

After Freeway’s disappearance, Darling Companion initially proceeds amusingly, with a winning modesty. But that modesty of tone and purpose increasingly seems merely slight and pointless, despite a gifted cast that manages to give more luster to scenes that would be even more enervated without this ensemble effort.

Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline are Beth and Joe, long-married and with two adult daughters, one wed and one whom they marry off during the first 30 minutes or so. Freeway is instrumental in bringing this young couple together. He’s the dog Beth spies lying injured beside a highway outside Denver, as she returns from a tearful airport farewell with her other daughter and grandchild. Beth is the emotional and excitable sort, and when she learns from the vet tending to Freeway that this dog will probably be put down by the animal shelter, she takes him home. This elicits a mild protest from Joe, but soon he and Freeway are contentedly taking morning walks together, as he talks on his phone. Joe’s a back surgeon and he has to keep in touch, especially with his nephew Bryan (Mark Duplass), a member of his practice.

It’s while he’s phoning during a jaunt through the forest around his and Beth’s mountain get-away that he loses Freeway, according to his wife because he self-absorbingly forgot to bring their special dog whistle with him. This accusation is meant to symbolize the couple’s long-unaddressed personality dissonance: He’s patiently and analytically rational and she responds to feelings and impulse. This may sound like a real motif, but it isn’t. As a flashpoint, this is muffled and slight. The movie’s attitude toward their discord is as affable and tolerant as it is to virtually all its characters and situations. Before very long, this amiability begins to come across as slack and unfocused. Nothing much happens even as there’s a lot of movement, centered on the search for Freeway.

This rescue effort is joined by Bryan, a self-professed gypsy mystic (Ayelet Zurer), Joe’s sister Penny (Dianne Wiest) and her new companion Russell (Richard Jenkins), a veteran small-time entrepreneur on whom Bryan and Joe look down as dubiously legitimate and perhaps dishonest. Their starchy, petite bourgeois disdain and their change of sentiment over several days give the picture more texture and bite than Beth and Joe’s minor domestic misunderstanding. But this amounts to only a predictable subplot, too incidental to give much spark to the proceedings.

The Kasdans (he directed and co-wrote the script with his wife) don’t seem to have experienced much comedic inspiration. Their movie is too often rather desultory and comically flat. There are little bursts of energy and wit, but they’re like puffs of smoke that dissipate in the air. I was left with a question about Beth’s apparent lack of productive purpose, about why she lacked a job or a satisfying avocation, perhaps a charitable use of her apparently generous amounts of time and energy. In this light, her complaints about her husband’s reserve may have as much to do with her underutilized intelligence and capacities. This kind of thinking can leave one feeling like a scolding Betty Friedan, and that can’t be an impression the Kasdans intended.

Watch the trailer for Darling Companion

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