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Darling Companion
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by Peter Sobczynski

"White Dog"
1 stars

When Lawrence Kasdan first appeared on the moviemaking scene in the late 1970's, he seemed to be the benefactor of the kind of charmed existence that Hollywood would never dream of depicting on the grounds that most of it would seem to be too good to be true. A former advertising copywriter, he first made waves when he sold a spec screenplay for a project that was originally destined to become a vehicle for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, two of the biggest stars in the world at that point. Alas, that project--a romantic thriller named "The Bodyguard"--wound up not getting made for various reasons but it won him many fans and when he completed the screenplay for "Continental Divide," a romantic comedy in the mode of the Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy classics of old, it was not only purchased by none other than Steven Spielberg (then the hottest new director around) but Spielberg suggested to pal George Lucas that Kasdan might be just the guy to rewrite a project that was in the hopper by the name of "The Empire Strikes Back." With that kind of giddy good fortune, it would be easy to despise the guy as just another schmuck who caught a break but as it turned out, he was that rare bird--a writer who was equally at home with blockbusters and smaller, personal projects. With films like "Empire Strikes Back," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Body Heat" and "Silverado," (the latter two of which he directed as well), he showed a flair for combining explorations of time-honored cinematic genres with a fresh and knowing contemporary spin that both critics and audiences found to be exciting and entertaining. At the same time, he also showed a flair for smaller, character-oriented projects like "The Big Chill," "The Accidental Tourist" and the great "Grand Canyon" that stood out in blessed relief to the popcorn epics that had increasingly begun to dominate the film industry.

Sure, there were a couple of missteps along the way--neither "Return of the Jedi" nor "The Bodyguard"--which was eventually made nearly two decades after its original acquisition as a vehicle for Kevin Costner (who was famously cut out of "The Big Chill" by Kasdan, who gave him the scene-stealing breakout role in "Silverado" as a consolation prize)--were especially good but they made the kind of ridiculous amounts of money that allowed Kasdan the chance to work on pretty much whatever he wanted. However, after reaching his artistic peak with "Grand Canyon" in 1992 (and if you haven't yet seen that film, what in blue hell are you waiting for?), the story takes a bit of a downward turn. He reteamed with Costner on the epic Western "Wyatt Earp" but it turned out to be an uncharacteristically stodgy bore (especially in comparison with the glorious competing Earp film "Tombstone," which beat it into theaters by six months) that was a major box-office flop. He regained his commercial standing with the romantic comedy "French Kiss" but the less said about that strained confection (except to note with astonishment that Nora Ephron had nothing to do with it), the better. His next film, the charming comedy-drama "Mumford," was an artistic return to form and remains one of his best films but it too failed to find much of an audiences in the fall of 1999 when it was competing against the likes of "American Beauty," "Fight Club" and "Being John Malkovich." When he finally returned in 2003 with the Stephen King adaptation "Dreamcatcher," it seemed to most observers at first to be the kind of formulaic product that filmmakers on the ropes often undertake in order to reestablish themselves in the eyes of the studios. Alas, the final product turned out to be one of the biggest critical and commercial disasters of its time--an insanely ludicrous sci-fi epic with a bunch of childhood friends banding together to battle aliens known as "shit weasels" (because of their propensity to hide where the sun most assuredly don't shine) while mad military man Morgan Freeman goes all General Jack D. Ripper in the background--and while it is impossible to imagine any way in which nonsense of this sort could have possibly worked, it was Kasdan who apparently took the fall and as a result, nary a peep from him was heard in the ensuing years. Hell, Indiana Jones, the character he helped breathe life into, wound up returning to the big screen before he did.

With the new film "Darling Companion," Kasdan becomes the latest acclaimed filmmaker to return to the big screen after a long absence and from the basic description of it, it seemed as if he was working in the kind of low-key and character-driven mode that previously bore such brilliant fruit as "Grand Canyon" and "Mumford." Of course, being away from the game for so long inevitably brings another set of questions and worries with it. Would this be a case along the lines of Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress," in which a similar return inspired a film that was both of a piece with his earlier projects and something willing to spin off into unexpected new directions or would it be something like John Carpenter's "The Ward," a film that didn't really offer much of anything new other than the pleasure of seeing a master craftsman working in his long-abandoned domain once again? As it turns out, the Kasdan whose work is on display here conforms to neither of those patterns, nor to anything else that a sane and sober-minded observer could possibly hope to expect, because this is the kind of film that is so indescribably and inexplicably rotten in every possible way that most people may find themselves assuming that the "Lawrence Kasdan" credited here must be some kind of imposter glomming on to a once-respected name as part of some long-range con. Sadly, the real Kasdan is the one responsible for it and as a result, viewers will have to grapple with the notion that a person who has contributed so much of value to contemporary American cinema could also be responsible for a work so utterly useless that I fully expect that whatever meager audiences it manages to scrounge up will burst into chants of "Bring back the shit weasels!" by the halfway point.

Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline play Beth and Joseph Winter, a well-heeled couple whose long marriage is currently a rut for the usual reasons--Joseph is a expert surgeon who cares more about his work than his family and Beth spends her time whining and flitting about in the manner of Diane Keaton. After sending one daughter and her new grandchild home after a visit, Beth and her other daughter, Grace (Elisabeth Moss)--a spunky type who immediately announces that she doesn't believe in such archaic notions as love and marriage (bet you can see where this is going)--are driving home on the freeway when Beth spots a bruised and bloodied dog on the side of the road. The two of them rescue the pooch and take it to a hunky local vet who informs them that unless they take it home with them, it is unlikely that anyone else will step up to adopt him. At first, Beth demurs because Joseph doesn't like dogs but after a split-second of soul searching, she decides to take him in for a few days until she can find someone else to care for him. Naturally, Joseph has some objections to this arrangement but considering his previous willingness to allow a mangy, flea-bitten and overly needy beast into his neat and orderly home and life, he doesn't seem to really have much of an overt problem with the dog either and as those days stretch into weeks, we even see him walking the dog and other canine-related tasks that he previously vowed that he would never, ever perform. Besides, Joseph and Beth pretty much had to keep the dog, now dubbed Freeway because Grace--who, you will recall, had previously announced that she had no use for love or romance or the like--falls in love with the aforementioned hunky vet and when the story picks up a year later, the two are getting married at her parents summer home in the Rockies with the slobbering beast (Freeway, in the case) even making an appearance. (Can you imagine what their "How did you two meet" story might have gone if the dog was taken away and put to sleep instead?)

What passes for dramatic tension kicks in a day after the wedding when Joseph is walking Freeway one morning in the woods without a leash or whistle and while his master is distracted by another phone call, Freeway chases after a deer and vanishes. Joseph isn't too worried--he figures the dog will come back after a while--but when he tells Beth what happened, she is inconsolable and accuses him of deliberately losing Freeway. A search party is formed consisting of Joseph and Beth, Joseph's sister Penny (Dianne Wiest), her significant other Russell (Richard Jenkins),a goofball with the harebrained idea of--get this!--opening an English-style pub in Omaha (catering to people who otherwise have to go to Des Moines for bangers and warm beer), Penny's so Bryan (Mark Duplass), whose own relationship is clearly on the skids because his significant other chose to skip the wedding (an excellent idea under the circumstances) and Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), a Gypsy caretaker who claims to posses the psychic capabilities needed to help find the dog and who definitely possesses the physical attributes needed to keep guys around even after making pronouncements like that. Over the next few days, the six break off into pair to scour the area in search of Freeway--breaking all sorts of laws in the process (good thing that they are all rich and white so that they won't actually have to face the music)--and while doing so, they, Joseph and Beth most of all, find themselves pondering the nature of their lives and relationships.

As I suggested earlier, the premise of "Darling Companion" sounds like it is right up Kasdan's alley but something clearly went horribly wrong along the way and the results are so awful that it seems impossible that the man behind "Grand Canyon" could have been responsible for it. Sure, he has made bad movies in the past but for the most part, they were either misfires like "French Kiss" or total head-scratchers like "Dreamcatcher," a film so lousy that it somehow managed to develop a certain bizarre majesty from just how wrongheaded the whole thing was. "Darling Companion," on the other hand, is something else entirely because it shows that he no longer seems to have any grasp on the very things that made his work so special in the first place. Take films like "The Big Chill" and "Grand Canyon," both of which he co-wrote with his wife Meg, for example. Both films deftly blended comedy, drama and incisive characterizations into works that audaciously attempted to come to grips with who we had become, both as a society in general and as individuals, in ways that have set them apart from other contemporary American films. This time around, however, the two Kasdans have produced a script that is nothing more than two hours of unrelieved navel gazing that is utterly devoid of wit, poignancy, insight or any reason to exist. The characters are all bland bores at best and smug jerks at worst and being stuck with them in the middle of nowhere as they nitpick about their unhappiness with themselves and each other becomes so grating after a while that the film almost drifts into oceans of insufferablity previous charted only by the likes of Henry Jaglom. (With nothing to work with, the talented cast turn in lazy and cliched performances that simply borrow from past work rather than offer up anything new--only Richard Jenkins comes close to creating a sympathetic character but even he becomes too silly to be believed after a while.) If the Kasdans were offering up some kind of critique or caustic commentary on their communal solipsism, that might have been interesting but they seem to be perfectly on board with their characters and their collective obnoxiousness and after a while, most viewers will find their sympathies shifting from those dolts to the missing dog and hope that he escapes their navel-gazing clutches forever.

There may be worse movies in store in 2012--though the mind reels at such a thought--but I cannot imagine that many of them will prove to be as much of a flat-out disappointment as "Darling Companion." This is one of those movies that is so lousy that instead of coming up with some pithy final paragraph that pulls together all of my thoughts into a clean and cohesive conclusion, all I have to offer is a bunch of snarky one-liners about its lack of worth. Here goes:

"Darling Companion" is like "Gerry" without the happy ending.

"Darling Companion" is like "The Grey" as produced by Coldwater Creek.

"Darling Companion" is a film that is so white that if an avalanche suddenly arrived to interrupt the proceedings, it might be considered the film's ethnic element.

"Darling Companion" is so bland that it could be called "Call of the White Sale."

"Darling Companion" is nothing more than another perfectly nice journey into the glories of nature ruined by a swarm of WASPs.

I have nothing more to add except to ask that if there does happen to be an English-style pub in Des Moines that specializes in the likes of warm beer and steak-and-kidney pie and someone reading this is familiar with the place, please drop me a line or link confirming its existence. For one thing, I am genuinely curious if such a place exists there. For another, I am confident that no matter what it is that they may have on the menu, it will be easier to swallow than "Darling Companion."

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23497&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/26/12 23:32:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.

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  20-Apr-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 28-Aug-2012


  DVD: 28-Aug-2012

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