Editor’s note: With Darling Companion opening this week in limited release, we thought we’d unleash Dustin’s review from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, originally posted on January 30, for you to take a bite out of. Woof.

The opening night film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has always been a walk-away; generally an under-cooked indie with no distribution and little shot at getting into general theaters. So why kick a film when it’s down? There’s not a lot of value in heaping negative criticism on a new filmmaker who will likely go on to bigger and better things with more experience.

That said, the 27th year of Santa Barbara’s festival brought a heavyweight opening night player in writer/director/producer Lawrence Kasdan, and his Sony Pictures Classics distributed Darling Companion.

Basically, fair game.

Darling Companion is the story of Beth Winters (Diane Keaton), her spine surgeon husband Joseph (Kevin Kline), and the dog that  brings them together. Or at least, it tries to be about them while clumsily pulling viewers into unnecessary side stories that aren’t particularly interesting. The film suffers on every level, but prominent among its faults is an odd pace that steals away any reason to invest in any of the characters, the spotty narrative, or the wholly expected and unsatisfying ending.

Beth is an emotional wreck that is supposedly maligned by the very busy Joseph. In a quick sequence in the first twenty minutes of the film, we’re introduced to Kline’s character, the Winter’s daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss), their nephew Bryan (Mark Duplass), and the dog that is central to the film, Freeway. We have little time to care for anyone or their quirks in the short time we spend with them before Kasdan one-year-laters us into the wedding of Grace at the Winter’s summer home in Colorado. Grace departs for her honeymoon, Joseph loses the dog, and thus begins the slog to emotional resolution between husband and wife.

From here the story deviates to include a series of mostly forgettable characters. We’re never given any indication early on that Bryan is a vital part of this story; when he begins falling for Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), the psychic gypsy caretaker of the Winter’s cabin and official dog-whisperer of the movie, its narratively confounding. The story would have been infinitely more interesting had it been theirs rather than an extended sidebar to a grumpy aging couple’s petty struggles. Zurer and Duplass are pleasant together when they’re alone on camera, and completely swallowed up in the rest of the cast when sharing screen time.

Said remainder of cast consists of Dianne Wiest as Penny, Bryan’s mother and Joseph’s sister, and her boyfriend Russell (Richard Jenkins), who is actually one of the few highlights of Kasdan’s film. They all have their angles — Russell appears to be a mooch in the business of getting Penny to dump her own cash into a spotty business venture. Bryan and Joseph do not approve, and we of course move toward discovery and resolution.

Through all of this we have Beth and Joseph blowing whistles and screaming a dog’s name, all while working through what appears to be a one-sided problem. Beth feels that Joseph cares more for his work as a surgeon than he does for his family — Joseph feels Beth is too emotionally high-strung and cares more for the dog than she does for him. Only one position is supported by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan‘s screenwriting.

Joseph is a busy man in a high-stress, competitive field — but his children clearly love him, and he’s generally sympathetic throughout the film in spite of his wife declaring otherwise. Keaton is emotionally all over the place, inexplicably rueful of Joseph, and has an irrational fixation on Freeway. This movie isn’t about men and women — it’s about believability. Kline comes off as a stand-up guy that simply has little patience for odd behavior. Keaton’s Beth gives the impression of needing a visit to a therapist who’ll give her some perspective. She never gets said perspective, and Joseph ends up biting the bullet and taking blame for behavior that appears to be nonexistent during the film.

All of this is really secondary, however, to the poor writing in general, and the failed premise. Much of the film is a trip down the road of realization that the two main characters are aging. That’s fantastic source material if you have a decent hook to make it matter, but this is no On Golden Pond. We’re supposed to care about a wealthy couple knocking on the door of senior citizenship having a series of spats brought to a head over the loss of a dog. I understand that there is a universe outside of the hour or so that we are in the presence of the characters, but the only thing that the Kasdan’s writing suggests is that Beth and Joseph are bored and nit-picky. Not exactly high drama.

In the end, this is a film by an amazing writer and director that clearly is not hungry anymore. Granted, he doesn’t really have to be. With classic cinema offerings like Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist, and The Big Chill among others — he’s honestly nothing to prove.

That said, the above is no excuse for flavorless, phoned-in vanity projects. Before the film, Lawrence noted that the screenplay was semi-autobiographical, based around he and his wife Meg’s loss of a dog. Among screenwriter circles you always hear that it’s important not to put too much of yourself in a script, lest you end up writing to satisfy yourself rather than your prospective audience. Somewhere early on in Darling Companion, Kasdan went off the rails — and it shows.

On the Upside: Mark Duplass needs to do more films; he’s engaging and easy on camera, and had excellent chemistry with Ayelet Zurer. Richard Jenkins is one of the only bright spots in the film; the scenes between he and Duplass bring some of the only real laughs of the movie.

On the Downside: Old folks biting at each other’s ankles over the loss of a dog does not an hour plus movie make.

On the Side: I could have done without the Russel handling Penny like a bowling ball bedroom scene. Thanks.

Dustin Hucks works for Film School Rejects, has written for Ain’t it Cool News, Hit Fix, and can additionally be found at the Metacafe Entertainment Network.


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