In only his second film as a director, Lawrence Kasdan created arguably the definitive portrait of the baby-boomer generation as it neared middle age. The Big Chill still stands the test of time, and it also began a working relationship between Kasdan and actor Kevin Kline that has gone on to include six movies, including their latest collaboration. Darling Companion feels closer to a sequel to The Big Chill than Grand Canyon, their previous attempt to make a sweeping generational statement.
Diane Keaton stars as Beth, the vaguely unsatisfied wife of Joseph (Kline), a self-centered, highly successful spinal surgeon. One day, Beth discovers an abandoned and badly wounded dog by the side of the road, and it triggers all of her dormant maternal instincts. Over Joseph’s objections, she adopts the stray and names it Highway, and soon her new pet becomes a way for her to alleviate all of the frustrations she feels towards her less-than-considerate husband. One year later, she brings the canine along when they go to a family wedding at a secluded cabin. After all of the other guests have cleared out, Beth and Joseph stay for some extra time at the dreamy vacation spot, along with Joseph’s sister Penny (Dianne Wiest) and her new boyfriend Russell (Richard Jenkins), as well as Penny’s son Bryan (Mark Duplass), a fellow surgeon who works in Joseph’s practice, and the beautiful Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), who claims to be part gypsy and soon becomes the focus of Bryan’s romantic affections. The whole weekend takes a dark turn when Joseph loses Highway while on a walk, and everyone bands together and refuses to leave the cabin as scheduled until Beth is reunited with her beloved pet.
Darling Companion is the kind of movie that benefits greatly from its modesty. Kasdan’s script, co-written with his wife Meg, captures the children of the 1950s approaching senior citizenship with the same ease that The Big Chill served up a snapshot of boomers in their thirties. It also avoids the heavy-handedness of Grand Canyon; the characters feel less like archetypes and more like three-dimensional people. Likewise, the situation feels like an actual life event, not a writer’s contrivance to force people together. This naturalism doesn’t allow for melodrama, and that’s just fine because Kasdan isn’t aiming for an epoch-defining portrait; he’s telling the simple story of a marriage hitting a rough spot because one of the spouses has gotten too comfortable with his success and with his partner.
It would be hard to assemble a cast like this (Kline, Keaton, Wiest, and Jenkins) and make something that was difficult to watch, and the more-than-capable actors allow Kasdan’s straightforward story to flow effortlessly -- nobody’s pushing, nobody’s straining. This is a very comfortable movie in that doesn’t show off in any way at all, and the actors’ low-key approach fits perfectly with Kasdan’s modest intentions.
But Darling Companion isn’t just for people who love actors; dog lovers will get a kick at how well man’s best friend is treated. A formidable amount of lovable pooches share screen time with the humans, and dogs are treated like sacred beasts throughout. These animals are gorgeously photographed, and if any film is likely to cause an uptick in the number of rescue dogs adopted from shelters, it’s this one.
Kasdan went almost a full decade without directing a movie, and if you’ve ever seen his 2003 adaptation of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, you would understand why. The man who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, made the modern noir masterpiece Body Heat, and revived the Western with Silverado seemed to have lost all of his commercial and artistic instincts: Dreamcatcher was a movie so singularly bad that even the always reliable Morgan Freeman couldn’t manage a convincing performance in it. Darling Companion shows that the time off did Kasdan a world of good. He’s found his muse again, and with any luck he’ll be able to go on chronicling the ups and downs of his generation right to the very end. leave a comment --Perry Seibert