“Darling Companion” sounds like the title of an Oxygen or Lifetime TV movie. Unfortunately, though it’s directed by Lawrence Kasdan (“The Big Chill”) and features a slew of stars, it also plays like one.
For an indie flick, everything in it is just a little too neat and tidy, with bookend first- and third-act scenes, a sense of real-time storytelling, and a spotlight on emotions, but not emotional complexity.
A Colorado surgeon (Kevin Kline) and his wife (Diane Keaton) have grown distant over the years, but when Beth and their daughter, Grace (Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men”) are driving one wintry day and rescue a stray dog, it sets up the return to “grace” for all of the characters. And when I say “all,” I mean exactly that. In this screenplay from Lawrence and Meg Kasdan, every character has a slightly askew relationship problem that’s run through the grinder of a standard plot until things come out happily blended. The adult daughter, for example, has been alone and dateless for many years, but she magically finds happiness with the veterinarian who examines the dog they name Freeway, for where they found him.
The rest of the characters have to wait for their heartwarming denouements. But there’s never any doubt that things will work out. Beth and Joseph will find a renewed closeness because they’re introduced to us as being emotionally distant. Joseph will cut his sister (Dianne Wiest as Penny) some slack because at the start he’s disapproving. And Bryan (Mark Duplass), Joseph’s doctor nephew, will become a little more accepting of the man his mother is dating (Richard Jenkins as Russell), just as Joseph will stop being such a white-collar snob around him. What’s more, Bryan, another long-term loner, will find the cure for that problem as well, because it’s obvious once his situation is mentioned for the benefit of the audience . . . and he’s introduced to a psychic gypsy named Carmen (Ayelet Zurer) who, like the audience, knows exactly how everything’s going to turn out.
Even the country sheriff (Sam Shepard) is predictable insomuch as we’ve seen his character before—the somewhat taciturn peace officer who’s been doing it so long that every case seems like only a mild disturbance in his force field.
As for the plot, it’s like a standard romantic/relationship comedy with a dog for the deus ex machine. The whole group goes to the wilderness for a week while Grace is off on her honeymoon. But things get dicey when Joseph is walking the dog and Freeway spots a deer and disappears into the woods. What follows are days of searching (and, for the characters, soul searching) as their encounters with each other help them to resolve the situations set up in the first act.
Predictability itself isn’t the worst thing in the world, but when we know where we’re going it’s easier to fidget along the way. I found myself wanting to get up and search the refrigerator every time the characters struck out into the woods again to shout “FREEWAY!” and wring emotion from their faces. The actors do their best to make it work, but the weak script and slow pace is too much for any of them to overcome—even Keaton, who’s given the most to work with.
“Darling Companion” was filmed in Utah in High Definition, and the location scenery is some compensation. Colors are natural-looking, as are skin tones. Black levels provide nice contrasts throughout, and while there isn’t much depth to the picture the edge delineation is still strong. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a single-layer (25GB) disc. “Darling Companion” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
This is an emotion- and dialogue-driven film for which the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack seems like overkill. In the woods the rear speakers have a little more life than in interior scenes, but at least everything is clear and full-toned, and to the filmmakers’ credit the outdoor scenes are perfectly mixed. When the audio really perks up is when the peppy soundtrack tries to enliven the film. It’s the most energetic thing about the film, in fact, and you’ll find yourself wishing for more tunes to pick up the slack.
A Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio option is also included, along with subtitles in English, English SDH, Spanish and Portuguese.
The Kasdans and Kevin Kline offer a full-length commentary that includes both average and above-average moments, but also some droughts. In that respect it takes its cue from the film itself. The other bonus features are “Red Carpet New York Premiere” showing the Kasdans, Kline, Wiest, and Casey the Dog; “Finding Freeway: Dog People”; “Behind the Scenes: Lawrence Kasdan”; and “Darling Companion: Behind the scenes.” All are more curiosities than substantial features that enhance one’s understanding of the film.
This is a movie that all but licks your face and begs you to like it, and you’ll find yourself wanting to oblige. But it’s just too structured and seems overly concerned with conveying a sense of real time . . . that you’d rather be spending doing something else besides watching people search for a dog and find themselves in the process.