More uneventful than a stroll through the dog-park, "Darling Companion" may be the most pedestrian movie ever made. Directed by veteran Lawrence Kasden, who started his career working on classic genre fare like "The Empire Strikes Back," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," (both of which he wrote) and "Body Heat" (his best effort as writer/director), "Companion" is the latest proof that filmmaking is undeniably a young man’s game. A dreadfully dull parable about how a failing marriage is saved by the emotional stress and subsequent bonding brought on by searching for a lost dog; the film is notable for nothing more than the considerable talents of the cast (Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, and Richard Jenkins among them.) The energy, the tautness, and the excitement that defines Kasden’s early work are as absent here as the dog his main characters search for.
I can’t say for sure whether Kasden is coasting or if he’s simply lost all semblance of an edge in his work, but either way he puts in a shockingly uninspired effort as director. The film’s saving grace is its cast, (almost) all of whom behave with admirable naturalism and argue with truly intimidating levels of bile in their speech. Kline and Keaton, as the central married couple, honestly infuriate the audience with their constant passive-aggressive barbs and spiteful side-comments (half the audience will appreciate the lived-in annoyance, while the other half will wonder why they weren’t divorced decades ago. Neither viewpoint is wrong.) Kline plays everything with the same note - he’s a doctor and thus obviously self-obsessed and dismissive of everyone around him - but Keaton finds some honesty in her role; displaying both hurt at Kline’s ignorance yet also an unfortunate admiration for the man she once loved in all of her expressions.
But these two aren’t the true highlight - that award goes to Diane Wiest ("Bullets Over Broadway") and Richard Jenkins ("Burn After Reading", "The Cabin in the Woods") as another couple stuck with Kline and Keaton for the weekend (and yes, the film/dog-hunt takes place at and around a cabin, so Jenkins clearly has an affinity for such settings.) As the black sheep of the family (their ambition to open an English pub - "warm beer!" - in the Midwest is the script’s way of telling us they’re eccentric idiots) they obviously serve as the comic relief - but Jenkin’s earnest delivery and his ability to make you really believe he likes the people with whom he shares the screen (even the ever-downtrodden Mark Duplass, playing everything as if he’s 10 minutes from a suicide attempt) is second-to-none.
But past the veteran stylings of the stacked cast (even Sam Shepard pops in here and there) there is absolutely nothing to appreciate here. "Companion" could be positioned as the conclusion of a trilogy Kasden has crafted about people of a certain age growing up - he used an ensemble cast and a similar tone to deal with the post-college years in "The Big Chill," and again to examine middle-age in "Grand Canyon," and now again for near-retirees in this dog-hunt - but this time there’s literally nothing at stake save for a beloved pet. The devolution into inanity is astounding.
Indeed, it’s almost unbelievable how much of a regression this film displays. Where the previous entry - "Canyon" - looked at subtle and unnoticed racism as its topic, "Companion" indulges itself with stereotypes and simplifications aplenty. The only non-white character here, played by the luminous Ayelet Zurer, is a gypsy constantly inundating our characters with mystical speeches and claims of clairvoyance. The film isn’t daring enough to frame her "powers" as legitimate; nor is it ignorant enough to position her as wrong - it instead uses her as the ’magical minority’ who uses her superior intellect for nothing more than to improve the lives of her white employers. The racial politics didn’t offend me so much as the lazy screenwriting did.
It simply pains me to see how far Kasden has fallen. Even the film’s lone moment of audacity - a switch to anime for a dream sequence in favor of live action - feels lazy and unearned; as if he’s simply trying to piggyback the style of other films rather than find one that fits for his own (because, daring though it may be, the animation doesn’t fit here at all.) And the conclusion, don’t get me started - it’s as simplistic and unchallenging as it could possibly get. Kasden’s days of examining mortality, race, and the overbearing mysteries of life are over. So are his days of crafting exciting genre fare. Now he just wants you to notice how cute his dog is.
Beth Winter :: Diane Keaton
Dr. Joseph Winter :: Kevin Kline
Penny Alexander :: Dianne Wiest
Russell :: Richard Jenkins
Sheriff Morris :: Sam Shepard
Bryan Alexander :: Mark Duplass
Grace Winter :: Elisabeth Moss
Carmen :: Ayelet Zurer
Sam Bhoola :: Jay Ali
Executive Producer, Lawrence Kasdan; Executive Producer, Meg Kasdan; Producer, Anthony Bregman; Producer, Elizabeth Redleaf; Executive Producer, John Kelly; Executive Producer, Christine Walker; Cinematographer, Michael McDonough; Film Editor, Carol Littleton; Production Design, Dina Goldman; Art Director, Christopher DeMuri; Set Decoration, Les Boothe; Costume Designer, Molly Maginnis; Casting, Ronna Kress.