Shaggy-dog story

Darling Companion

Well, la-di-da, la-di-da, look who’s all wet.

Well, la-di-da, la-di-da, look who’s all wet.

Rated 3.0

We spend most of director Lawrence Kasdan’s Darling Companion waiting for it to get really good, and it never does. It starts out pretty good and stays that way for an hour and 42 minutes. The movie meanders along from scene to scene in an amiable stroll; the pleasure of the movie’s company is real, even if what we learn about any of Kasdan’s characters is slight.

Diane Keaton plays Beth Winter, a Denver matron with an emotional hair-trigger. The thought that her 2-month-old grandson might not remember her next time they meet is enough to send her into uncontrollable sobs. Her husband, Joseph (Kevin Kline), a successful surgeon, is more than a little self-involved. And their daughter Gracie (Elisabeth Moss) says he can be “kind of a prick sometimes.”

One day, Beth and Gracie find an abandoned dog along Interstate 70. Beth’s cup of compassion runneth over, and they take the dog to Sam (Jay Ali), a handsome vet whose eyes light up at the sight of Gracie. A year later, Gracie and Sam are getting married at Beth and Joseph’s Rocky Mountain summer cabin—and the dog, now named Freeway, is still a member of the family.

After seeing the newlyweds off to their honeymoon in Bora Bora, Joseph takes Freeway for a walk in the woods. As usual, his mind is elsewhere—on his cellphone, talking to his office assistant about an upcoming operation—and by the time he notices that Freeway has dashed off in pursuit of a deer, it’s too late to call the dog back.

The search for the lost Freeway involves not only Beth and Joseph, but their guests who stayed on after the wedding: Joseph’s sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest); her son, Bryan (Mark Duplass), also a surgeon and Joseph’s partner in practice; and Penny’s boyfriend, Russell (Richard Jenkins), a middlebrow, working-class schlub whose ambition is to build the first English pub in Omaha (“It’ll be the only place in the Midwest where you can have—are you ready?—warm beer”).

Also involved is the cabin’s live-in caretaker, Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), who claims that her Romany heritage has given her a second sight into the animal world; she says Freeway is out there, alive, and wants to come home.

The presence of Keaton and Wiest underscores Darling Companion’s resemblance to a Woody Allen movie. So does the opening white-on-black credit sequence (with the high-pedigree cast listed in alphabetical order), and the structure of the script by Kasdan and his wife, Meg, in which something as simple as a lost dog (I almost said “trivial,” but God forbid I should suggest there’s anything trivial about losing your dog) leads to major and possibly life-changing revelations among the characters.

Beth’s resentment of Joseph’s patronizing attitude bubbles over, as does Penny’s defensiveness about Russell’s less-than-stellar intellect. Carmen’s second sight tells her that Bryan is secretly happy that his power-executive girlfriend didn’t come along to the wedding, and a hesitant romance sprouts between them. And Bryan begins to suspect that there’s more substance to Russell than meets the eye: On an expedition to see a crazy hermit in the woods, Bryan recoils in panic from a rattlesnake, but Russell stays cool—“He’s leaving. Don’t piss him off. You gotta learn to relax.”

The Woody Allen comparison eventually breaks down, because Darling Companion never digs as deeply into these characters as it leads us to believe—but, then again, the magic doesn’t always work for Allen, either.

The movie wanders around almost aimlessly, with Michael McDonough’s camera ogling the beautiful Colorado scenery, and Kasdan’s expert cast making the most of opportunities large and small presented by the script. The movie’s funniest scene is the one least likely to sound like it, as Joseph and Beth, lost in the woods, grapple in rain and darkness while he talks her through the process of resetting his dislocated shoulder.

Darling Companion tends to presume on our good nature by promising a bit more than it delivers, and unpredictability is not among its virtues. But predictability can be a virtue, too, especially when the actors are as personable and professional as the ones Lawrence and Meg Kasdan have assembled for us here.