Darling Companion

(2012) * Pg-13
103 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Lawrence Kasdan. Cast: Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elisabeth Moss, Ayelet Zurer, Mark Duplass.

/content/films/4327/1.jpgWell-bred writer-director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill) goes to the dogs with Darling Companion, a currish new ensemble "comedy." Kasdan's eleventh feature as a director rounds up regular collaborator Kevin Kline and Diane Keaton, but great opportunity quickly reveals itself to be great disappointment. Keaton plays Beth Winter, the well-off wife of spinal surgeon Joseph (Kline). With daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss) striking out on her own, empty-nester Beth redirects her maternal energy toward a dog she finds abandoned on the side of the road. She dubs the dog Freeway, and swiftly bonds with the animal over the initial objections of her husband.

One year and one dog-themed montage set to "Thing Called Love" later, family and friends assemble at the Winters' vacation home in the Rockies, on the occasion of Grace's wedding. A multitasking Joseph takes a business call while walking the dog, and Freeway hightails it. And so three couples—Joseph and Beth, Joseph's sister Penny (Dianne Wiest) and boyfriend Russell (Richard Jenkins), Penny's son Bryan (Mark Duplass) and the cabin's psychic-gypsy caretaker Carmen (Ayelet Zurer)—must track down the dog, bonding and healing all the way.

The script by Kasdan and his wife Meg is never less than utterly obvious; most audiences will immediately identify with the film's canine lead and look for the nearest route of escape. That Freeway remains a blank doesn't help: pet owners will presumably be able to relate to Beth's manic love of her dog, but the Kasdans do nothing to establish Freeway's character or appeal, other than accidentally to suggest the dog is too smart to stay with either its abusive first set of owners or its insufferable second set.

Um, I guess spoiler alert: it's a long way to the unintentionally comical "running across a field" reunion of a retiree and her dog (oh yeah, they go there: dog love is a many-splendored thing). If only the rest of the film were as amusing: the forced nuttiness goes almost entirely limp despite the stars' comic credentials. The stereotypical psychic gypsy fails to stoke any Woody Allen-esque whimsy, a random animated dream sequence proves ill-advised, and Kasdan encourages an off-puttingly theatrical acting style that compounds the participants' embarrassment factor.

That leaves only the ensemble relationship drama, which ranges from soggy to all wet—indeed, a storm serves as the weighty metaphor for what the couples' relationships must weather. Though the film has autobiographical roots, the dialogue sounds like therapy role play ("Everything is a crisis with you: there's no sense of proportion," "I'm so sick of you judging my feelings all the time) rather than genuine discussion. The film's niche audience is indiscriminate aging dog lovers; people lovers should look elsewhere.                                       

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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