Watching Darling Companion, I could tell that director/co-writer Lawrence Kasdan knew what he was after but had some trouble finding it. Strangely enough, this is surprisingly reminiscent of the film itself, which tells the story of a group of people having a great deal of trouble finding a lost dog. All the characters know that they want to find him, but actually reaching this goal will prove to be a tremendous physical and emotional challenge. It’s a well-intentioned movie, utilizing a reliable relationship plot and terrific actors that give decent performances, although I felt something overall was missing; it lacks the necessary style capable of elevating its merely entertaining and heartwarming premise into something more meaningful.
Before the story proper begins, we’re introduced to several characters. At the top of the list is Beth and Joseph Winter, who have been married for many years and live comfortably in the suburbs of Denver. Beth (Diane Keaton) is an empty-nester, with one daughter already a mother and the other a college student. The latter, named Grace (Elisabeth Moss), is visiting during a term break. Joseph (Kevil Kline) is a successful spine surgeon. He’s so successful, in fact, that he will spend a great deal of time on his cell phone – more time than is necessary, according to Beth. Despite many years of marriage, it’s obvious that the spark is no longer there. Beth thinks Joseph is distant and a workaholic whereas Joseph thinks Beth is overly emotional, especially since their children moved away from home.
The catalyst of the plot is a dog Beth and Grace find abandoned on a highway. Covered with dirt somewhat bloodied, they take him to a handsome young vet named Sam (Jay Ali), who immediately catches Grace’s attention. The dog is treated, and Beth takes him home. Although she and Grace give him a bath, she makes it clear to Joseph that she has no intention of keeping the dog. But you know how it goes in situations like this; one year later, he has been named Freeway and has become a part of the family. So too has Sam, who marries Grace at the family cabin in the Rockies. At this point, we meet Joseph’s sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest), and her new boyfriend, Russell (Richard Jenkins), who has a seemingly harebrained idea to invest their money into a Midwest English pub. This does not please Penny’s son, Bryan (Mark Duplass), who works with his uncle Joseph as a surgeon.
The plan is to stay for the weekend at the cabin. One morning, as Joseph takes Freeway for a walk, the former becomes distracted by a cell phone call while the latter becomes distracted by a scurrying deer. Freeway runs off and goes missing. While Joseph seems rather nonchalant about it, Beth goes into panic mode and launches a full-scale search-and-rescue effort, recruiting Joseph, Penny, and Bryan into the cause. Tagging along is the cabin’s caretaker, a gypsy woman named Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), who recently lost a dog herself and claims to possess psychic abilities. Her repeated visions, vague and arbitrary though they may be, act as a guide for the group as they split up into teams and search the woods for Freeway.
To deal with this right away, the subplot with Carmen does not work at all. Regardless of whether she’s a crackpot or genuinely blessed with a third eye, this is a relationship comedy/drama – which is to say, this not the kind of story that supports the inclusion of a character like this. It was a strained, random, and unnecessary move on the part of the filmmakers. Straining it even further is the fact that Carmen rather quickly becomes Bryan’s love interest. Their attraction to each other stems from nothing made apparent to the audience, apart from the convenience of two single characters being in the same space at the same time. As fashionable as it is to adhere to the rule that opposites attract, the simple fact is that they don’t seem all that compatible.
Carmen aside, it’s obvious what Kasdan and his wife/co-writer Meg are trying to do here. Darling Companion isn’t really about the search for a dog; it’s about relationships in general and the processes of discover and rediscovery. Through this experience, Beth and Joseph once again learn to communicate, and Bryan learns to see Russell as something other than a lofty dreamer and a leech on his mother. Everyone’s heart is in the right place. Of that much, I’m certain. Having said that, the film is at times rather confused about its tone, shifting wildly from mild humor to serious drama to broad physical gags and caricature profiles. Perhaps the film’s deficits will be overshadowed by the audience’s desire for Freeway to be found. Of that, you won’t get a word out of me.
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Sony Pictures Classics