"Darling Companion" is about how a dog brings a family together. Now before you go "Awwww," you might be happy (or unhappy) to know that the film is not a tear-jerker – at least not most of the time. It is, if I may be forgiven the obvious allusion, a shaggy-dog story about a shaggy family.
This is the first film in seven years from director Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote it with his wife, Meg. They last collaborated in 1991 on "Grand Canyon," another multicharacter ramble, although that one, about the depredations of life in Los Angeles, had a lot more on its mind than "Darling Companion." It was also a lot gloomier and less fun. I make no great case for their latest collaboration, which runs off the track as often as it stays on it, but it showcases terrific actors who seem to enjoy each other's company. Maybe it's just that I like movies that ramble, at least I do when the ramblers are worth watching.
Kevin Kline plays Joseph Winter, a self-regarding surgeon with an ego as big as all outdoors. (And there's a lot of outdoors in this movie, which is mostly set in Colorado against the background of the Rocky Mountains.) His wife, Beth, played by Diane Keaton, isn't unhappy, exactly, but she spends more of her time tolerating her husband than cozying up to him. When Beth and their daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss) rescue a sick mutt found cowering beside a freeway, they adopt him, much to the patriarch's displeasure. The mutt, of course, is named Freeway, and the vet who cares for him (Jay Ali) ends up marrying Grace.
It is at the conclusion of their nuptials that the film heads into its main thoroughfare. A number of friends and family stay on at the Winters' vacation home in Telluride (actually shot in Utah). Freeway goes missing while out for a walk with the cellphone-fixated Joseph, and various search parties are organized to find him. Freeway, in effect, becomes an agent for reconciliation. Joseph and Beth, lost on the wilderness trail, hash out their differences – she even gets to reset his dislocated shoulder.
The wayfaring search party also includes Joseph's sister Penny (Dianne Wiest), who is accompanied by her new boyfriend Russell (Richard Jenkins), for whom a more apt name might be Randy. They have a plan to open a pub that goes over with the rest of the family like a very lead balloon. There's also Bryan (Mark Duplass), a doctor like his uncle Joseph, who is smitten by Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), a free-spirited local and self-proclaimed psychic who sends the parties scurrying on a series of wild goose – or wild dog – chases. She has Gypsy blood – not exactly the freshest of clichés. Sam Shepard turns up in a funny cameo as a no-nonsense sheriff.
Kasdan doesn't try to create a heightened sense of importance from all this voyaging. He lets the stories amble along to suit the pace of the actors. We know that Joseph will lighten up, we know that Penny and Russell will be accepted into the fold, and we, of course, know that Freeway will not end up being eaten by a grizzly. (But you knew that already, no?) The pleasures in this film, such as they are, come from the ways in which our expectations are fulfilled.
A better movie would challenge our expectations, or at least fulfill them in ways that weren't quite so comfy. A better movie would also feature a cast of this caliber in situations that weren't one step removed from sitcom status. Still, "Darling Companion" is a pleasant little dawdle and yet another example, in these dog days for cinema, that dogs are a movie's best friend. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, including references and language.)