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REVIEW

Darling Companion

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 27, 2012 at 4:31 a.m.

— Darling Companion

83 Cast: Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, Sam Shepard, Jay Ali Director: Lawrence Kasdan Rating: PG-13, for some sexual content including references, and language Running time: 103 minutes

I must admit I enjoyed Lawrence Kasdan’s Darling Companion on several levels, even as I realized that it’s not — by any standard criteria — a terribly good movie. It is basically a story about upper-middle-class people who can afford expensive things and how the loss of their dog inspires recriminations and new alliances. I didn’t for one moment take it for a “true” excavation of human experience, but I enjoyed the company of the actors.

It begins with Beth (Diane Keaton), the wife of a busy, perpetually distracted Denver surgeon Joseph (Kevin Kline), impulsively stopping on a snowy highway when she sees a stray dog (played by a large mixed breed named Kasey) in the median. (The dog is allegedly bloodied and terrified, though Kasey isn’t thespian enough to work up even a worried look. He affects the look of the long-suffering family retriever who must endure little girls’ tea parties while wearing a tiara.)

After shining on police officers who offer to execute the animal on the spot, Beth and her pointedly unmarried daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss, of Mad Men) elect to take it to a vet. (But the beast is wet and dirty, so to protect her car’s interior, they break out Joseph’s dry cleaning from the trunk and wrap it in a freshly starched shirt. Which explains some things.)

The vet — a charmingly handsome guy named Sam (Jay Ali) — congratulates them on saving the pooch, and takes an immediate interest in Grace. Beth agrees to foster the animal, whom she christens “Freeway,” so she takes him to her lovely home and bathes him in the tub in her lovely, large bathroom off the master suite. Joseph comes home, finds them there, and mildly reminds her they have no need of or desire for a dog. Of course, they’re not keeping Freeway. He’ll stay with them only until he can find his real home.

Flash-forward a number of months, and Grace and Sam are getting married. And, in trademark Kasdan style, Joseph and Beth and all members of their extended family — including Freeway, who has charmed his way into all their hearts (even Joseph’s) — assemble at the family’s magnificent cabin in the mountains for the ceremony. The essential players are:

Bryan (Mark Duplass), Joseph’s nephew and fellow surgeon, a mild, thirtysomething young man well on his way to becoming as busy and distracted as his uncle.

Penny (Dianne Wiest), Joseph’s sister and mother of Bryan, a recently bought-out newspaper journalist looking for a second act to her life. She has just become engaged to — Russell (Richard Jenkins), a suspected (at least by Joseph and Bryan) gigolo who means to open — with Penny’s money — an “authentic” British pub, complete with warm beer, in Omaha. He’s happy to give his future relatives a chance to get in on the ground floor of this obvious gold mine.

Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), the “gypsy” caretaker of the family’s cabin who takes a liking to Bryan.

After Grace and Sam are safely married off and en route to a honeymoon in the South Pacific, Joseph takes Freeway for an ill-fated walk. He takes his cell phone, but not the magic dog whistle which is apparently the only thing the dog attends to.

When Freeway doesn’t come back, well, all the characters join in the search for him. And, in doing so, come together in not so surprising ways.

Now, some of you probably understand that I’m a dog person, and I believe that the loss of a pet could generally provide a jumping off point for an intense adult drama. But Lawrence Kasdan, bless his heart, is content to make a Lawrence Kasdan movie out of it, and not really a topflight Lawrence Kasdan movie at that. Darling Companion is equal parts agreeable, silly and frustrating — Carmen, in particular, becomes an annoying character whose motivations are unnecessarily complicated — but at least it doesn’t indulge a lot of the animal-in-peril tropes that some movies do. Except for one dubious animated dream sequence, Freeway is simply absent.

There is one genuinely moving scene late in the film, when after all the others seem to have consigned themselves to having lost the dog, Keaton’s Beth walks into a meadow to call for Freeway one last time. You hear the anguish in her breaking, hoarse voice and you understand the real, emotional underpinning of her attachment.

Yet, that graceful scene represents maybe 2 percent of the film’s running. And while there are lots of little likable moments in the film — Keaton, Kline, Wiest and Jenkins are real pros, and Duplass is proving himself to be a surprisingly versatile performer — you eventually begin to understand why Freeway bounded off. These people are tedious.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 07/27/2012

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