Diane Keaton in a scene from "Darling Companion." (Wilson Webb / Sony Pictures…)
Like Freeway, the lovable stray dog at the center of this very teary comedy, "Darling Companion"has lost its way. Even the marquee ensemble anchored by Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Kevin Kline and Richard Jenkins is not enough to rescue this motley mutt of a movie.
Maybe it's a case of emotions getting the better of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan. "Darling Companion" is close to his heart, inspired by Mac, the dog he and wife Meg rescued from a Los Angeles shelter who was lost during a trip to the Rockies. For three weeks they stayed and searched — and if the film is any indication, they fought and reconnected while trying to find Mac.
That idea — of who actually rescues whom when it comes to dogs — forms the spine of the screenplay, which the couple co-wrote. That the movie is so ill-formed is all a bit confusing given Kasdan's ability to wring so much out of complex group dynamics as he did in "The Big Chill," or breathe intrigue and intensity into desperate missions like "Raiders of the Lost Ark,"or create quirky romantic characters a la "The Accidental Tourist." That hot streak had cooled by the turn of the century and his last film, 2003's sci-fi thriller "Dreamcatcher," wasn't thrilling. "Darling Companion" unfortunately doesn't change that course.
It all begins with a dog-less family and a depressed mom. Beth (Keaton) is in the grip of a bad case of empty nest syndrome. She's crying as she drops one daughter off at the airport, crying more on the way home as she realizes her youngest, grad student Grace (Elisabeth Moss), will be moving out soon too. Husband Joseph (Kline) is a busy, distracted surgeon who is weary of Beth's tears, and they are indeed tiring and too frequent.
On the drive home from the airport Beth notices a dog on the side of the freeway. A few animal crackers and a bath later, the family has a new pooch, and Grace has a new romance, Freeway's very attentive vet Sam (Jay Ali). This is accompanied by lots of slice of life quick cuts, all of them featuring Freeway. This dog is given so much soft-focus adoration by the filmmaker and cinematographer Michael McDonough ("Winter's Bone") that even dog lovers will start to get restless. It is also a clue to just how thin the story to come is.
They do need to lose him, though, so flash-forward a year and the film starts to pick up. Grace and the vet are getting married in a rustic vacation home in the Rockies and the rest of the family shows up packing some much needed issues. The most interesting couple, or at least the one with the best scenes, are Joseph's quirky sister Penny (Wiest) and her bubbling new beau Russell (Jenkins), who has some questionable investment ideas. Penny's son, Bryan (Mark Duplass), emerges from the shadows. He's a surgeon in practice with his uncle Joseph and Duplass makes him delightful. Vows are made, cake is consumed — and then, while taking Freeway on a walk in the woods, Joseph gets distracted and Freeway bounds away.
That incident drives the rest of the film — allowing everyone to resurrect old gripes and grudges and figure out whom they really love. Most of the tips on the dog's whereabouts come from Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), a clairvoyant gypsy who is the caretaker of the vacation home. There are some nice moments in the mad scramble as the group breaks into teams to search for Freeway, but the dialogue is mostly soggy rather than sharp in the way that would have brought the characters and crisis into more compelling focus.
The Kasdans eventually found Mac; for Freeway's fate you'll have to see the movie, but it's hard not to wish the filmmaker could get his mojo, as well as his dog, back.