By Joan Ellis
Darling Companion is a good news/bad news movie. Reasons to see it: nice idea, good cast. Reasons not to: promise unfulfilled. Who wouldn’t want to see a comedy about a wedding that gathers the out-of-town relatives whose already tenuous relationships are put to the test by a communal search for a lost dog?
But let’s start at the beginning.
Basing their story on personal experience, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan and his co-writer/wife Meg Kasdan introduce their main characters quickly. Beth (Diane Keaton) and her daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss) are driving the freeway when Beth spots a dog and insists on rescuing it. After a wise stop at the office of veterinarian Sam (Jay Ali), they bring the dog, now wonderfully named Freeway, home to husband/father Joseph (Kevin Kline), who is both an accomplished spine surgeon and a full-blooded narcissist. We have met the emotionally isolated wife and her work obsessed husband.
Grace marries the handsome young vet and disappears from the film on their honeymoon. Their wedding has served its purpose: the gathering of various dysfunctional relatives who will form the search party when Dr. Joseph loses Freeway by letting him run free on a country walk. And so the fine cast is in place. Russell (Richard Jenkins) is in middle-aged love with Penny (Dianne Wiest) and manages to alienate his prospective family immediately. He will, the collective believes, use Penny’s money to open a new pub in Omaha. Bryan (Mark Duplass), brother of Penny, colleague of Joseph, is a doctor in love’s early stages with Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), a lovely gypsy with the power (usually quite undefined) to read Freeway’s mind. Sam Shepard as Sheriff Morris is a perfect chunk of laconic local color as the search goes on – and on – and on.
The prolonged search through the mountains (filmed in glorious Utah) is the backdrop for the unfolding of the love stories and foibles of all the principals. Why then, do they lose their grip on us as they start to look for Freeway? It’s the writing, of course. As the gang stumbles through the woods, often in the dark, they begin to overact in the absence of visual fun or electric dialogue. This lands the movie squarely on the path to the falls, slips, and slides of slapstick. It stays there for far too long.
But wait. Diane Keaton, in her wildly personal brand of eccentricity, convinces us that Beth is a dog lover who would demand an emergency landing if she spied her dog out of a plane window. The wonderful Richard Jenkins shines as Russell proves himself under stress. By film’s end we can imagine that this nutty family will gather happily some day in the “Partridge and the Plow,” Russell’s dream pub in Omaha. Keaton and Kline, meanwhile are their fine selves as they recombine the self-absorbed husband and the needy wife who finds the emotional answers in an abandoned pup. They all need Freeway.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.