Beth and Joseph Winter (Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline) don't seem to know it, but they're going through a bit of a rough patch. Even if they don't yell at each other, irritation lurks just under the surface: Beth isn't a fan of Joseph's focus on his work, and Joseph is exhausted by Beth's need to make a big deal out of everything. When Beth finds a dog on the side of the freeway and decides to adopt it (naming it Freeway), the animal serves as a bit of a Band-Aid, giving Beth something to fuss over and off Joseph's back, but when Joseph accidentally loses the dog during a walk in the mountains, their marital dischord bursts through the surface as the whole family tries to track the animal down.
From the script through to the casting, Darling Companion feels so much like a stacked deck that it's hard to applaud its mild successes. A story about aging people and the work that goes into keeping up a relationship over several decades, the story of a lost pet, a romance, Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Kline, plus Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, and Sam Shepard. Not only does this sound like the easiest lay-up imaginable for the movie's target audience (people who are the same age as the core cast and crew), but really, it'd be more surprising if these professionals had managed a complete failure than it is that it manages a minimal level of emotional interest.
Once the dog is actually missing and the movie's conflict comes into focus, it's pretty easy for most of the cast to make the movie entertaining. Jenkins plays Russell, a vaguely sleazy unemployed demolition expert who's dating Joseph's sister Penny (Wiest), and he finds just the right level of endearing stupiditiy that helps a predictable story thread about his transformation go down smoothly. Mark Duplass (having a good year) is also a welcome presence as Penny's son Bryan, transforming a pretty vague role into a likable character with natural charisma. Kline is also in good form, scoring a couple of big laughs with well-timed, biting one-liners and really investing in his character's few dramatic moments. Kasdan, to his credit, wisely stands back and lets the cast do the work, avoiding the kind of over-emphasis on emotional arcs that would turn the movie into a sitcom.
Unfortunately, the film takes twenty minutes before any of that happens, and they're pretty formless and sloppy. Even if the film is about "relationships at various stages," as Elizabeth Moss says in the extras, that's not particularly great justification for spending almost a half hour on her character Grace (one of Beth and Joseph's daughters) and her romance with a vet (Jay Ali). Their wedding is crucial to the plot, bringing the characters together, but it feels like a set-up that could've been refined and shortened through rewrites of the script. There's also the character of Carmen (Aylet Zurer), a Gypsy woman who has visions of Freeway, and becomes a love interest for Bryan. It is very strange to see a Manic Pixie Dream Girl-style character in a movie that is not focused on that romance, but there she is, with frank talk of sex, knowledge of the future, weird friends, etc. Kasdan also tosses in an animated dream sequence, because why not?
Most disappointing, though, is Keaton's performance. She seems tired and comedically tone-deaf, playing the her character's emotional state very broadly and investing little dramatically. Where other performances work to subdue or de-emphasize convention, she highlights convenient nature of the distance and reconciliation between Beth and Joseph and the script's stereotypes about emotional women. It's true that Keaton hasn't been treated too well by Hollywood in her old age, but this feels like pure autopilot. One of the film's most surprisingly effective moments has Joseph apologizing for some of his mistakes, and adding, with a beat, "your turn." Kline delivers his half perfectly, but Keaton's side is forgettable. Then again, maybe that's the point: Kasdan also ends his movie a scene too early, emphasizing -- intentionally or unintentionally -- that the bond formed between Beth and Freeway may be more important than the bond between Beth and Joseph.
A remarkably lazy Photoshop collage of focus points -- Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, and the dog -- adorns the front of this Blu-Ray disc. Admittedly, this is not an easy movie to sum up in a single image, but the picture just feels like an afterthought. The disc comes in a plastic-conserving Vortex Blu-Ray case, and there is an insert promoting 20 years of Sony Pictures Classics releases.
The Video and Audio
Sony's 2.35:1 1080p AVC video and DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio presentation of Darling Companion is top-notch. Fine detail is excellent, right down to the dog's fur, black levels are handled nicely (seen in the many night sequences of the characters looking for the dog), and the film's natural color palette of greens and browns are nicely rendered. Music and the sounds of nature fill the movie's soundscape: twigs and leaves snapping, babbling brooks, distant animals rustling, etc. Other audio options include a Portuguese DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
An audio commentary with director/co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, executive producer/co-writer Meg Kasdan, and actor Kevin Kline is a discussion that matches the tone of the movie: fairly reserved, heavy on family anecdotes (most, if not all of the movie is inspired by the Kasdans' own experiences), and supported comedically by Kevin Kline, who cracks jokes, but also does a good job of keeping the conversation going by asking questions. Nothing essential, but decent for fans of the movie, and surprisingly consistent given that Lawrence kicks off the track by informing the viewer it's his first commentary.
"Darling Companion: Behind the Scenes" (4:56) is a very short overview of the production with a few easily-digestible soundbites about the cast and story. "Behind the Scenes: Lawrence Kasdan" (5:02) is a similar featurette, focusing (obviously) on the director and his impressive resume. "Finding Freeway: Dog People" (3:34) looks at the main dog, Casey, and the other dogs used in the making of the movie. The disc rounds out with "On the Red Carpet: New York Premiere" (2:42), which is exactly what it sounds like. Fans of Diane Keaton might be a little disappointed by the extras package, though, because she doesn't really appear in any of the material.
A promo for Blu-Ray and trailers for A Separation, Where Do We Go From Here?, Neil Young: Journeys, Damsels in Distress, and Robot and Frank play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Darling Companion is also included. All of the extras are also subtitled in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Although I had problems with Darling Companion, it was certainly not an unpleasant experience -- I do like dogs, and I'm a fan of most of the cast. For viewers in the target audience, I expect they'll enjoy Darling Companion enough to make a rental reasonable.
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