‘Darling Companion’: Grown-up talk

April 18, 2012

There’s something comfortably enjoyable about Lawrence Kasdan’s “Darling Companion,” something almost soothing.

Too few movies these days take the time to explore personal interaction and the way we communicate – or think we communicate – with the people who are closest to us. Kasdan is a master at this sort of thing (along with his wife, Meg, with whom he made the unjustly overlooked “Grand Canyon”).

Which is fine as far as it goes. Still, “Darling Companion” seems disappointingly without sharp edges. There is drama, to be sure, but this is a film that is less about the small events, which happen over the course of a few days to a family of characters, than the ways the relationships between these characters deepen and grow. There’s certainly room for a movie about self-discovery; I just wish “Darling Companion” were funnier and more pointed in doing so.

Kevin Kline and Diane Keaton play Joseph and Beth Winter, a long-married couple in Denver; he’s a self-important spinal surgeon and she is the wife whose needs have always taken a back seat to his. But when she and her hesitant daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss) rescue a dog from beside an interstate, she ignores her stuffy husband’s complaints and keeps the dog, naming it Freeway.

A year later, their daughter marries the veterinarian who treated the dog when they found it, in a wedding at the family’s vacation home in the Rockies. The happy couple leaves on its honeymoon; Joseph and Beth, along with Joseph’s sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest), her boyfriend Russell (Richard Jenkins) and her son, Bryan (Mark Duplass) all stay on for a few days. One afternoon, while walking Freeway on a mountain trail (and distractedly talking on his phone to his office), Joseph loses Freeway when he bolts after a deer.

Joseph comes back, dog-less, but is unconcerned, saying, “Oh, he’ll come back.” But Beth is devastated. She insists of searching the woods for the dog – and postpones her departure to stay on and look for it. So, indeed, does everyone else, leading to mix-and-match search parties that give this sometimes fractious family a chance to talk out disputes, disagreements and concerns as they wander the mountain trails in search of Freeway.

There’s little real jeopardy here: At one point, Joseph and Beth get lost in the mountains as both darkness and rain approach. The only time Freeway is threatened by wild animals is in a dream that Beth has. Instead, there are encounters with locals, including a crazy hermit and the crotchety sheriff (Sam Shepard) – and a vein of mysticism, supplied by Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), the caretaker for the Winters’ house, who announces that her gypsy blood means she’s always had a gift of second sight.

The only real drama is interpersonal: Beth and Joseph’s arguments about his self-absorption; Joseph and Penny’s arguments about Russell’s pie-in-the-sky dream of opening the only English pub in Omaha, using money Penny got from a buyout from her job.

But most of this is easily resolved or only sketched in. You get the sense that the Kasdans wrote more but couldn’t work it in on a limited budget. There are numerous moments that feel incomplete or unfinished, including the ending.

Yet there are pleasures to be had in this film. For starters, there’s the ensemble, which blends actors who strike sparks with each other. Kline and Keaton have an affectionately abrasive relationship, while Duplass and Wiest also find the rhythms of a woman justifying her fresh start to her concerned adult son. Jenkins, one of the best actors working in film today, finds wonderfully unpredictable spin for lines that shouldn’t yield laughs but do.

It’s also a pleasure to see a movie in which people talk out their feelings without being either boring or cloying. They’re articulate and intelligent, two qualities sadly missing from movies today.

You wish there was more at stake in “Darling Companion,” as well as an occasional impulse at just the barest setup-punchline interchange. There are many things to enjoy about “Darling Companion”; you come away wishing there were more.

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