Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Kasdans' DARLING COMPANION: great cast, good performances and a so-so movie

Have onetime movie-making royalty, Lawrence Kasdan -- shown below, right: the director and writer (or co-writer) of Body Heat, The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, to name his three best films -- and his wife Meg (below, center, a long-ago actress and now occasional producer and writer) gone to the dogs? Literally, yes -- one particular dog, at least. Figuratively, not quite, though we would have wished that their new film, DARLING COMPANION, were a better piece of movie-making. Even as is -- exceedingly well-cast and well-performed, if not always up-to-snuff in the writing and directing departments (the ending is one of the dullest ever seen) -- the movie is more of a pleasure than many of the reviews you may soon read will let on.

The dog in question is a mixed-breed mutt named Freeway (shown on the poster, above), found on the side of a major highway (see photo, below) and played by two animals: Kasey, a multi-colored Collie mix, and his Aussie mix understudy, Kuma -- and I have no idea which one that is in the photo). From the outset, the movie's arc is a bit bizarre, setting up the big question (will the dog be accepted into the family?) and then answering it almost immediately so that, by the fifteen-minute point, the movie appears to be on the brink of ending happily. But, no -- it goes on from there, growing more compli-cated and fun, and giving its actors the chance to shine. They do.

This is an ensemble cast and a very starry one, at that, all of whom work together like the terrific pros they are. Diane Keaton, above, left, plays the gracefully aging grandma who, with daughter (Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss, above center and at bottom), finds and then adopts the animal.

Dad, a successful surgeon but mostly absentee husband (played by the always reliable Kevin Kline, above and at bottom) accepts the dog. But then one day -- when the extended family has gathered for the daughter's wedding at a mountain resort -- while on a dog walk, Dad gets involved in a cell phone call and Freeway runs off somewhere and disappears.

Audiences will be grateful that certain family members stay around to help search for him, particularly Dad's nephew, played by mumble-corer Mark Duplass (below, left, who fits in with his prestigious cast members as though he were born into them); his mom (Dad's sister), played by Dianne Wiest (above) with her usual mix of dizziness and strength; and her new suitor, the always wonderful Richard Jenkins (below, right, of Six Feet Under and The Visitor), who brings some surprise to the movie by playing an odd character who proves a much better man than we initially think. (Jenkins and Wiest have a lovely foreplay scene that should make you wonder why we don't see more of this kind of thing in movies about the older generation. Maybe because they don't yet make many movies about the older generation that feature sexuality on the menu. Cloud 9 in still an anomaly.)

Best of all maybe is the young woman who organizes the wedding, a gorgeous, if odd duck played by Ayelet Zurer (below) as part-gypsy with a penchant for telling the future. This is surely one of the more bizarre romantic characters seen in films for awhile, and Miss Zurer makes the most of her role with a particularly commanding presence and great beauty.

Every one of these actors gives him/herself over to the screenplay one hundred per cent, and it is no fault of theirs that the movie is lacking. But that screenplay dawdles when it should speed ahead, and the dialog -- as deftly as the cast offers it -- is too often didactic or rambling. Yet so pointed and professional is that cast that, for much of the movie, you can relax in your seat and have a pretty good time.

And did I mention that Sam Shepard (above) also makes an appearance as the resort town's sheriff? He's nothing like as good as he was in last year's Blackthorn, but he proves a pleasant addition to the fun.

Darling Companion (103 minutes, from Sony Pictures Classics) opens this Friday, April 20, in New York and Los Angeles. Click here to see this week's playdates, with cities and theaters, and others that will be forthcoming across the country in the weeks to come.

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