Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Darling Companion

I know, I know: What was I thinking? Well, 21 years ago, Larry Kasdan directed and with wife Meg co-wrote one of my favorite movies of the 90s, the L.A. ensemble piece "Grand Canyon." Two decades later, they've collaborated on "Darling Companion," a movie of jaw-dropping insubstantiality that, to my pleasant surprise, played last night to an audience of one. (I got to recite the pre-show spiel about talking, texting and parking validation.)

Diane Keaton stars as Beth, the emotionally fraught wife of orthopedist Joseph (Kevin Kline). (What is it about characters named Beth that makes them so depressive? I'm thinking of Jessica Lange in the infinitely superior "Men Don't Leave," telling Joan Cusack, "I don't want a Bethcake" and throwing them out the window. Cusack then takes Lange on a hot air balloon ride, assuring her it worked wonders for a friend who'd also been going through a tough time. Whatever happened to her?, Lange asks. "Oh, she's institutionalized now.")

Beth has just married off her elder daughter and is working on the younger one when she spots a stray dog from the freeway. They stop the car, get out and retrieve the mutt, then take him to the vet, who (veterinarians being perhaps the single most favorably portrayed profession in Hollywood) is not only young, handsome and successful, but makes house calls like a Jimmy Stewart character and instantly falls for Beth's daughter.

Suffering from a sexagenarian Empty Nest syndrome, Beth inevitably adopts the dog, naming him Freeway, and takes him with them on vacation. (This is the kind of movie with a title card reading, "Joseph and Beth's Summer Home in the Rockies.") When, on a walk, Joseph discusses a patient's operation on his mobile and Freeway scampers away, all hell breaks loose.

"You lost the dog while you were talking on the phone!" Keaton shrieks, with an indignation typically reserved for the reading of child-porn indictments. (What is Keaton doing shrieking? Kasdan has amassed a cast of actors we love - her and Kline and Dianne Wiest and Richard Jenkins - and done his best to turn us against them.)

The rest of the movie's 103-minute runtime consists of a wild goose chase to find Freeway, in which Kline's mother's caregiver, Carmen (Ayelet Zurer in an offensive, Razzie-worthy performance), makes statements such as, "I had a vision of your dog on a basketball court" and, rather than have her committed, they traipse off to the two basketball courts in town. (Her clairvoyance is so pedestrian it's like a genie who grants three wishes, but two of them have to be doorknobs. She also uses the phrase "my people" a lot.)

Along the way, they commit various crimes: breaking and entering in one case; then, in a climactic scene that must be seen to be believed, interference with a flight crew when Beth spots Freeway from their charter jet and Joseph fraudulently induces the pilot to turn the plane around. But they have enough money, neither the sheriff (Sam Shepard!) nor anyone else seems to mind.

Growing up on the Westside, I've spent my life among sybarites oblivious to their own massive senses of entitlement, but these folks may take the cake. In the breathtaking worldview of "Darling Companion," the most important issues facing a 65-year-old woman today are that her dog ran away and her rich surgeon husband spends a good chunk of time on the phone.

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