Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Darling Companion (opens May 18th at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[DARLING COMPANION opens in Cleveland on Friday May 18th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

When I was a kid, I was devastated by watching COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, the movie version of William Inge's 1950 play, on TV. There was Shirley Booth, as Lola, the middle-aged housewife calling out for her little white dog, Sheba, who ran away nearly a year ago. I dreamt about Little Sheba again last night, Doc. It made me cry. The play, in fact, isn't really about the dog – it's about Lola's lost youth and her alcoholic husband Doc's disappointment with her slovenliness and the fact that he gave up a promising medical career to marry her. But my heart, so wild then, as now, about dogs, broke for Lola and the eternally wandering Sheba.

A similar circumstance is at the center of DARLING COMPANION, the latest film by Lawrence Kasdan, the writer-director who specializes in clever, slick films with ensemble casts, including the ur-yuppie movie THE BIG CHILL. Co-written by Kasdan and his wife, Meg, DARLING COMPANION also is about on a lost dog – a mixed-breed collie-type who is rescued by Beth (Diane Keaton), who is married to Joseph (Kevin Kline, who appears in most of Kasdan's films), an orthopedic surgeon. In SHEBA , the dog is a dramaturgical device; in DARLING COMPANION, the dog is a flesh-and-blood critter that fills an emotional void for Beth.

The dog enters Beth's life on the way home from the airport, where she has just tearfully said goodbye to her daughter and baby grandson. She spots the injured, bedraggled pooch near the highway and enlists her younger daughter, Grace (Elizabeth Moss) in luring him into their car, affixing one of Joseph's freshly dry-cleaned neckties to the dog's neck as a leash.

While Beth lovingly lathers the dog in the bathtub, Joseph declares that the dog must go. But Beth's love for the dog, which she names “Freeway” for his roadside origin, prevails. Freeway becomes part of the family, a handsome, loyal pet who stays close by Beth's side – “a mama's boy,” she notes with pride. The dog is her bulwark against her fear of of aging and the empty-nest life she faces with the stiff and unsympathetic Joseph, who is never without a cell phone or a scalpel.

Freeway also has a magical matchmaking function: the dog's gentle Indian-American veterinarian (Jay Ali) and Grace hit it off immediately and soon thereafter get married at Beth and Joseph's lovely Rocky Mountain vacation home. (The fact that I have just typed the words “lovely Rocky Mountain vacation home” indicates more than anything else that this is a Lawrence Kasdan movie.)

Also gathered at the vacation home for the wedding, a ceremony merging Eastern and Western traditions, are: Joseph's sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest, a bit underused here); her overly friendly and vaguely disreputable fiancé, Russell (Richard Jenkins), who wants the others to invest in his proposed English pub in Omaha (a big joke among the assembled sophisticates); Penny's doctor son Bryan (actor-filmmaker Mark Duplass); and the lovely vacation home's even lovelier caretaker, Carmen (Ayelet Zurer).

The dog takes off after a deer while Joseph is walking him in the woods, and Beth falls apart, blaming Joseph and insisting that the family stay on to search for Freeway through the mountains and nearby towns. Carmen, who claims Gypsy heritage, guides the search party with her supposed psychic visions. The search entails some harrowing moments – Beth and Joseph getting lost in a thunderstorm in the mountains, Joseph suffering a shoulder injury, Russell and Bryan narrowly escaping an angry, rail-splitting mountain man who improbably wears a Harvard sweatshirt. At the same time, the increasingly hopeless mission helps heal relationships – Beth and Joseph move toward a rapprochement, Bryan warms to his mom's future husband and, least convincingly, Bryan begins a romance with the mysterious, exotic Carmen, who may or may not be manipulating the group with a “Gypsy trick.”

The story is as slight as it sounds, amounting to what one person sardonically described on the Internet Movie Database website as “white people problems” – the petty travails of the kind of people who have vacation homes in the mountains. What is remarkable is that although it lacks depth and breadth, it is still a fairly pleasurable film, expertly directed and with an appealing cast. Kline is reliably good, and Keaton, at 66, remains preternaturally beautiful, handling Beth's emotional highs and lows convincingly. There's nothing terribly surprising about the story lines – Beth feels neglected by Joseph's devotion to his career, ho hum – but the handling is breezy and so professional it hardly matters. There is some, though not nearly enough, clever banter: Russell and Bryan, having escaped the mountain man, remark on that unlikely Harvard sweatshirt. “Figures he's a Harvard man." “They always gotta let you know about it, too.” Pity the movie doesn't have more of that kind of social wit.

Unlike Inge's play, the Kasdans' movie is not a dark, tearjerking drama infused with 1950s Freudian ideas about sexual repression. It's a sunny domestic tale with a few mild things to say about marriage, aging and – because it was inspired by the true story of a lost rescue dog — about dogs and what they mean to people. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.

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