The name "Lawrence Kasdan" has become synonomous with movies that are about chapters in peoples' lives and, in a sense, getting older. In 1983, Kasdan directed the hit film The Big Chill, a story about a group of friends in their thirties that reunite after years of being apart for a trip together. In 1991, he followed it up with a film about people in their forties, titled Grand Canyon. And now, Kasdan and his wife have penned a story about a group of family and friends in their sixties who are united over a unique circumstance in his latest film, Darling Companion. The common thread that runs through all of these movies (and several other films from Kasdan) is the casting of Kevin Kline as the leading man for the story. In Darling Companion, Kline is joined by Diane Keaton, Mark Duplass, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins and Ayelet Zurer.
Inspired in part by an actual event that happened to the Kasdans, the film version of the story involves Diane Keaton's Beth finding a dog on the side of the road one day and soon finding it becoming a part of her family. The family then goes to a cabin in the woods for a weekend following their daughter's wedding and, suddenly, the dog takes off into the woods while Joseph is walking him (and not really paying that much attention). This launches a thorough and expansive search to find the missing beloved pet, which causes all kinds of tensions and heartaches among the small group.
I often enjoy going into a movie not knowing much about it. For Darling Companion, the selling point for me was Kevin Kline and Diane Keaton and the assumption that this was mostly a family comedy that involves a dog. However, it proved to be quite a different film. It opens with Beth finding the dog and then taking it to the vet--where her daughter becomes smitten with the handsome veterinarian--and eventually accepting the dog into her home. The daughter marries the veterinarian soon afterward, and heads off on her honeymoon with him. This leaves Beth and her husband Joseph with their dog, of whom they named "Freeway," with family and friends at a cabin in the forest. On Joseph's watch, Freeway takes off and doesn't return, leaving Beth completely distraught and Joseph frustrated with their newfound predicament. Meanwhile, their guests include Penny and her son Bryan (who's in his thirties and is a successful surgeon) and her boyfriend Russell -- much to Bryan and Joseph's disapproval. Lastly is the housekeeper, Carmen, a woman who proves to be a lot more than everyone assumed her to be.
Darling Companion reveals itself to be more about the human relationships and getting older than it does about the dog, Freeway, itself. It's clear that Joseph and Beth have grown apart some, especially with his attention and efforts fully devoted to his own profession as a spine surgeon. Meanwhile, Bryan is instantly attracted to Carmen and begins his quest to win her heart, which she seems surprisingly easily receptive to. Bryan also gets to spend some quality, although undesired, time with Russell for the two to get to know each other a bit better during the dog search. And when Carmen reveals that she's of Gypsy descent, her "visions" of Freeway's location leads the group on various wild goose chases, some with nearly perilous results.
For its character development, that is where the charm of Darling Companion lies. Kline is great as Joseph, and Keaton makes a great pairing for him as well. As the viewer, you want to see them resolve their personal issues and grow closer together, but it's a journey to get there. Mark Duplass is also great as Bryan, who is the youngest of the main cast and is determined to win Carmen's affection. Even though he's a surgeon (and that profession can spawn characters more like Joseph than him), he has a pretty down-to-earth personality so you can't help rooting for him--even if he seems attracted to Carmen just because she's beautiful. Carmen, on the other hand, is one of my biggest hang-ups with this film. Once she reveals that she has Gypsy in her blood, she becomes this fountain of wisdom that Beth decides to buy into just because she's so desperate to find Freeway. For much of their search, then, Carmen is relaying her vague "visions" and leading the gang to and fro. While it brings the unity and closeness the individuals need to each other, the "visions" don't amount to anything, and they really don't help in finding the dog at all. In all of that, Kline is the cynical voice of reason (or 'lack of faith' as some might see it), but he ends up being right about Carmen in the end. One of the film's other problems is choosing the name "Freeway" for the dog. While everyone's entitled to the freedom of naming their pets whatever they want to, the name "Freeway" brings to mind cold asphalt and busy traffic. There's nothing warm and endearing about the name, and after hearing the cast shout the name for the hundredth time, you're liable to find your care for the dog's rediscovery waning. The only upside to the dog having such a terrible name is it helps the viewer focus more on what the main point of the movie really is - the human conflict and resolution. Marley & Me was similar in the fact that they used the dog to be the constant in the story of a couple who meet, fall in love, marry, have a family, and ride the ups and downs of life together; it was never really specifically about the dog Marley (although that dog really played a bigger part than Freeway does here). My last complaint about the film is a minor one. There's a scene where Bryan and Russell go to see a man named Christus who's a hermit in the middle of the woods. Considering how most of the rest of the film is grounded in a sense of reality (maybe save for Carmen's Gypsy talk), Christus's appearance and exaggeratedly deep voice feels lifted out of an Adam Sandler film rather than a more serious drama. The scene was helpful for Bryan and Russell's relationship, but Christus seemed sorely misplaced otherwise.
The content of Darling Companion was just a little surprising to me. While Kasdan may have written the screenplays for classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars films Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, he's most known for his more edgy people-driven stories like the R-rated Big Chill and Grand Canyon (among others). There is a little bit of frank sexually-related dialog, but it's seldom foul or crude just for a laugh (maybe except for one scene where Russell asks the doctor Joseph while walking through the woods if it's typical for a man's "d*ck" to shrink as they get older). However, the profanity in the film includes just about every word that can be accepted for a PG-13 movie with the exception of the "F" word (there didn't seem to be a single one here). As such, there are over twenty uses of the "S" word and an array of other words, including a considerable amount of blasphemy. The intended audience for this film is mostly for people in their sixties, much like the main characters, but anyone who can relate to being a passionate pet owner, and has had similar family dynamics as these people do, can also relate to them. In the end, Kasdan embraces the fact that the audience will be more mature, but he clearly is a little more sensitive to not going overboard with the content in order to still attract his intended viewers (i.e. by not making this movie deliberately R-rated in content).
All in all, Darling Companion is a relatively heartwarming family drama that probably isn't nearly as effective as similar remote family vacation films (Dan In Real Life comes to mind), but fans of any of the cast, and especially viewers in this age group, will probably get the most out of Kasdan's return to the director's chair. The content still seems unnecessarily rough, especially when it comes to profanity, which especially makes it tough to recommend, but overall there are just enough problems with the film itself to keep it from being a classic worth revisiting over and over.
- John DiBiase (reviewed: 8/26/12)
DVD Special Features Review
You can grab Darling Companion on Blu-Ray or DVD for your at-home viewing. We only had the DVD for review, but the film looked pretty decent in standard definition. There were a few scenes where the film probably could have benefitted from high definition viewing (especially with it taking place in the woods with lots of great nature footage), but the quality of the DVD is pretty good. In addition to the theatrical trailer, we have the following extras on the DVD...
Darling Companion: Behind The Scenes (4:56) - This is a brief overview of the story and the central cast reflecting on why they chose this story and what it was like to work together.
Behind The Scenes: Lawrence Kasdan (5:01) - This is a little ode to Lawrence Kasdan, director of Darling Companion and other notable films like The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, French Kiss, Silverado (all with Kevin Kline), Mumford and more. (I also didn't know he wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and both Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) Here they talk about Kasdan, his legacy as a filmmaker and writer and how this story is easily relatable.
Finding Freeway: Dog People (3:33) - Here we find that the writers of the film, Lawrence and Meg Kasdan, had really found a dog on the side of the road and later lost him in the woods for three weeks before he was found again, similarly to what happens in the film. It's a short featurette, but it's neat to learn a little about the dogs used in the filming of the movie as well as the writers' own experiences.
On The Red Carpet: New York Premiere (2:42) - These are snippets of red carpet interviews from the New York premiere of the film earlier this year in April, featuring some quotes from Kasdan, Kline, Wiest and others.
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 8/26/12)
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Sex/Nudity: Grace's wedding dress is a V-Neck that dips low in the front; Joseph tells his daughter that it's not too late to back out of her wedding. She jokes that maybe after the honeymoon and he asks her not to sleep with her new husband; A man tells his potentially future mother-in-law jokingly that she's a "sexy minx;" Penny comments to Joseph that Russell is one of the most "generous lovers" she's ever known, to which he complains he doesn't want that mental image; While walking in the woods, Russell asks for Joseph's professional opinion about if "your d*ck" shrinks as you get older. Joseph, feeling awkward about the question, asks him to clarify what he means by "your d*ck," and Russell said "mature d*cks;" Mocking Carmen's gypsy claims, Russell climbs in bed with Penny and jokes that the men in his family have the ability to find things and he puts his hand under the covers. We don't see what he's doing, but Penny reacts excitedly for a moment and laughs; Carmen comments to Penny that she is a passionate woman and it's not easy for men to keep up with her sexually. She comments to Penny that Russell is so cheerful and asks if he can keep up with her. Penny smiles and says "Why do you think he's so cheerful?"; Carmen says to Bryan that his job as a surgeon must take "large cojones," to which he agrees, "I do have large cojones;" Beth and Joseph talk together about how Grace should give her nephew a cousin and she should "get right on that... literally" and Beth says she told Grace "to throw away her pills months ago;" Carmen tells Bryan how she envisions their marriage would go, and that the sex would be amazing and he'd have no problem keeping up with her because he has "good hands" (being a doctor). After she finishes the hypothetical, he says "Tell me about the sex again" and they begin kissing, but are interrupted; Carmen and Bryan walk into her room together and the door closes. The next morning, we see Carmen's bare back while laying in bed on her stomach with sheets up to the middle of her back (apparently after she and Bryan had slept together).
Vulgarity/Language: 21 "S" words, 1 "g*dd*mn," 1 "J-sus," 19 "Oh my G-d," 13 "Oh, G-d," 5 "G-d," 2 "a" words, 3 "d*mn," 2 "S.O.B," 2 "pr*ck," 1 "a**h*le," 6 "d*ck," 3 "h*ll," 1 "b*stard;" 2 "p*ss," 1 "b*tch," 1 "b*lls" (and 2 "cojones"), 1 "s*cks," 2 "cr*p"
Alcohol/Drugs: There's a lot of talk about opening an English pub in Omaha and "warm beer"; Guests have drinks at a wedding; Beth and Joseph share wine in a house.
Blood/Gore: We see a dog with some blood on his leg and some on his head.
Violence: Russell jumps on the back of a hermit in the woods who threatens him and Bryan. They fall on the ground and then Russell runs off; Joseph falls down a slope and dislocates his shoulder and encourages Beth to pull it back into the socket. It's a long scene that ends with a crunchy pop sound, and then he passes out; Beth throws two different rocks at a window and then hits it with a stick. Each time, they just bounce off the glass. They then go to the door and break the glass in the window there; The sheriff holds a gun on Beth and Joseph; Beth dreams of Freeway being chased by a pack of wolves (which is an animated scene); Joseph fakes a sickness on a plane; Russell hits the back of a hysterical woman's chair to get her to stop panicking.
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.