In Lawrence Kasdan’s Darling Companion, a movie about a missing pet and other First World concerns, Beth (Diane Keaton) and Joseph Winter (Kevin Kline) land on a park bench for a few reflective moments. Beth’s adored collie-mix took off three days earlier during a walk with Joseph, who wasn’t paying proper attention. She adores the dog; he merely tolerates it. Despite his infraction of the good partner code, they’ve bonded while suffering physical discomfort and some G-rated danger during the search. “It’s a jolt, finding ourselves like this,” Joseph sighs. “Not young.”
Frankly it’s something of a jolt finding Kline, 64, and to a lesser extent, Keaton,66, that way and in these circumstances. Twenty-nine years has passed since Kline starred in Kasdan’s The Big Chill, but Darling Companion makes it feel like 49 years. It has a gentle if unenlightening message, namely that we should all take time off to reconnect — the soundtrack tends to the Bonnie Raitt but the movie seems to subliminally hum “slow down, you move too fast” — and Keaton and Kline have decent chemistry. (Have they really never been in a movie together?) They give perfectly pleasant, if restrained, performances. But even though his carelessness with the dog Beth rescued the year before has opened the floodgates of resentment for the long-suffering housewife, the film remains as bland and soft as a nice bowl of oatmeal.
(READ: See where the soundtrack of The Big Chill ranks on Time’s Top 25 Movie Soundtracks)
Kasdan repeats central motifs of The Big Chill, subbing in a wedding in the Rockies (that of Beth and Joseph’s daughter Grace, played by Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss) for a funeral in South Carolina and again, keeping a core group of houseguests around after the big event, in this case to search for Freeway the dog. Successful spine surgeon Joseph could be an aged version of Chill’s effortlessly successful Harold Cooper, but grown so settled in his ways as to be immovable and oblivious to his wife’s needs. “You want his attention; herniate a disc,” Beth says. There’s even a sexy exotic in the mold of Meg Tilly’s Chill character, Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), a fruitcake who claims her Romani blood is producing visions of the dog and what he’s seeing and feeling. Please. But instead of the drama of a friend committing suicide, Darling Companion is driven by a missing dog. You can see why it lacks a degree of intensity in comparison.
As ever, Kasdan (Mumford, Grand Canyon) is focused on exploration of close relationships. The best aspect of Darling Companion is its depiction of a family dynamic. “Dad can be kind of a prick sometimes,” says Grace. Case in point, Joseph’s disdain for his sister’s Penny’s (Dianne Wiest) new boyfriend Russell (Richard Jenkins), who he calls “that idiot.” Russell is an affable drifter and everyone, including Penny’s son Bryan (Mark Duplass) is so worried that he’s after Penny’s small nest egg — they want to open an English pub and the snobs turn up their noses at the very thought of Omaha’s future “The Partridge and the Plow” — that they’ve closed their eyes to the reality that Russell makes Penny happy. She’s headed for senior citizen status but her sex life has never been better.
I’m all for movies that appeal to older audiences; they are few and far between and the movie’s underlying themes of careers and ambitions winding down at the same time as concerns about mortality ramp up are certainly legitimate. (Although perhaps over-emphasized: Russell and Joseph compare PSA, aka prostate specific antigen, numbers while Sam Shepard, playing a sheriff worried about holding onto his job, grouses about his kidney stones.) It didn’t even bother me that not much seemed likely to happen, short of Beth punching Joseph or not finding Freeway. Nothing much happens in The Big Chill and I’d still watch that any day of the week.
What surprised me about Darling Companion was the awkwardness and even amateurism of the filmmaking, despite its veteran director. There’s an animated sequence halfway through that may have been an attempt at hip playfulness but just comes off as strange. You’d never guess that Kasdan used the same cinematographer, Michael McDonough, who made the chilly palette of Winter’s Bone so effectively bleak. Darling Companion has the look and tempo of a commercial for an arthritis medication. Even though the Rockies, dressed in fall foliage and lit like a tourist brochure, make a pretty backdrop, most of the bushwhacking seems to occur in the same patch of fake looking bushes.
Finally, it is problematic enough that Kasdan and wife Meg’s screenplay depends so heavily on a wild goose chase steered by Carmen to drive the narrative, and that their representation of a woman of Romani (Gypsy) origins is borderline patronizing. But the search is edited so choppily that all sense of time is lost, along with our sense of engagement in the action. Carmen dispatches a search party in one scene and then Kasdan jumps to the not-particularly-interesting aftermath in the next. The effect is of a movie both meandering and rushed. These companions are fine, especially Jenkins and Wiest, twinkling as brightly as ever, but to call anyone darling would be overstating the movie’s appeal.
(READ: 29 years ago, Richard Corliss reviewed The Big Chill for Time)