‘Darling Companion’ unleashes late-life frustrations
‘Darling Companion” is about and for an audience that really doesn’t get enough respect: women of a certain age who love their dogs too much. It’s far from a great movie — an overwritten, underplotted vanity project that’s a distant echo of what director Lawrence Kasdan (“The Big Chill,” “Grand Canyon”) could do in his prime. But it has Diane Keaton, and that’s enough.
Keaton plays Beth, the well-to-do wife of an officious Denver back doctor named Joseph (Kasdan regular Kevin Kline). One daughter (Lindsay Sloane) is married with kids, the other (Elisabeth Moss, of “Mad Men”) is single but not for long, and Beth is going crazy without anyone to live for. Enter Freeway (played by a charmingly shaggy mixed-breed named Kasey), who is scooped up bloodied but undamaged from the side of an interstate and who becomes Beth’s lifeline. Keaton and the script (written by Kasdan with his wife, Meg) know exactly what it is that dogs provide when one’s own family flees: companionship, affection without judgment (or backtalk), a blank screen on which to project one’s emotions, a furry head to massage with one’s feet.
Unfortunately, “Darling Companion” is mostly about what happens when the dog gets lost. Beth and Joseph are at their weekend home in Telluride — I’m not sure the Kasdans know anyone who doesn’t have a weekend home — when Freeway takes off after a deer and doesn’t return. Joseph, who was walking the dog and had never taken to him in the first place, is the guilty party, and as the search fans out across town and countryside, all of Beth’s late-life frustrations pour helplessly forth.
Kasdan has long specialized in putting multiple characters in a couple of rooms and letting them grudgingly talk things out. “Darling Companion,” his first film in nine years, isn’t about to change that. Coming along on the search-and-redemption mission are Joseph’s ex-hippie sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest); her new boyfriend, a big-hearted lout named Russell (Richard Jenkins) who wants to open a British pub in Omaha with Penny’s money; Penny’s son Bryan (Mark Duplass), a doctor in danger of becoming as stuffy as Joseph; and the couple’s caretaker, Carmen (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), a hot gypsy number who can sense where Freeway has gone via her connection to the Prana.
Sam Shepard also wanders through as the town sheriff, grousing about his kidney stones and high cholesterol. Yes, ’60s survivors, it has come to that. Too much of the time, “Darling Companion” plays like “The Big Chill” with the politics replaced by Metamucil — I kept hoping for Jeff Goldblum to turn up as an aging gossip blogger — and the prevailing self-absorption is alternately touching and pitiful. Worse, the character of Carmen is an active pain. Are we supposed to believe in her threadbare New Age blather or laugh at it? The movie can’t make up its mind.
There’s also the issue of miscasting. Duplass is much too scruffy to be a credible surgeon (I wouldn’t want him anywhere near my body with a scalpel) and asking Kline to play an anal-retentive jerk just seems perverse. Sure, he can do it, but we treasure this actor for his rebellious barbs of intelligence. Joseph’s the kind of guy most Kevin Kline characters would enjoy tormenting.
So you’re thankful for Jenkins, whose Russell becomes more expansively cheerful as he and the other characters encounter silly threats to their upper-middle-class complacency: rattlesnakes and survivalists, bighorn sheep, and dislocated shoulders. And “Darling Companion” would be instantly forgettable if not for Keaton, who imbues Beth with a sorrow, warmth, wisdom, and rage that feel earned. With her recent autobiography, the actress has become one of the few aging counterculture stars who seems to Get It — what it was like then, what it’s like to be growing older now, what you can hold on to and what you need to let go of. Her performance here is an extension of that worn, resilient grace.
There’s a moment, very late in the film, where Beth stands in a field calling out for Freeway one last time. Keaton’s voice goes hoarse and breaks, and our hearts break with it, so profoundly do we understand this woman’s need for this dog — the mute optimism and uncompromised love Beth used to believe in until life and family betrayed her. Nothing else in this otherwise ersatz movie feels so hauntingly real.