DARLING COMPANION (PG-13)
1 1/2 stars out of 4
After all those little, yippy fellas last year — Uggie from "The Artist," the Pomeranian from "Young Adult," Arthur from "Beginners" — it's nice to see a REAL dog up on the big screen.
Lawrence Kasdan's "Darling Companion" revolves around a collie mutt. No offense intended to lovers of tinier tail-waggers (OK, maybe a little good-natured prodding) but it takes a big dog to make it in the Rockies of "Darling Companion."
Unfortunately — and it is unfortunate — that is about all that can be said for "Darling Companion," Kasdan's first film in nine years and miles shy of his earlier ensemble pieces like "The Big Chill" and "Grand Canyon."
In "Darling Companion," Beth (Diane Keaton) and her daughter Grace (Elisabeth Moss) discover the stray on the side of the road. Against the wishes of Beth's husband, Joseph (Kevin Kline), but to the delight of the handsome veterinarian, Sam (Jay Ali), they adopt him and name him Freeway.
Canine-inspired romance (the best kind) buds between Grace and Sam, and they soon marry at her parents' remote Colorado country house. While they're on their honeymoon, Freeway goes missing and the ensuing search stresses simmering family frustrations.
But the tensions are minor, the film's drama puppy stuff.
Beth, the most desperate searcher, chafes at the callousness of her husband, a spinal surgeon with a doctor's disposition, wrapped up in his work.
Also hunting is Joseph's sister Penny (Dianne Wiest) and her new boyfriend Russell (Richard Jenkins). Russell, in an ambition perfectly suited to Jenkins, hopes to open a British pub in Omaha called the Partridge and the Plow.
His cheerfulness grates on his prospective in-laws, including Penny's son Bryan (Mark Duplass). Bryan pairs up most eagerly with the cabin's caretaker Carmen (Ayelet Zurer), a mystic descendent of gypsies who guides the search with her psychic insights.
The group traipses through the lush fall foliage of the mountains (the film was handsomely shot in Utah by cinematographer and budding filmmaker Michael McDonough), as they grow incrementally closer to each other. They interrogate locals like the sheriff, played by Sam Shepard in his natural habitat: fly fishing on a stream.
Such a story, built around a lost dog, is naturally sentimental, but Kasdan, who penned the script with his wife, Meg, generally avoids that trap. It instead feels utterly neutered, a film with little on the line and a talented cast begging for a little wit and a few jokes. The characters are introduced awkwardly and a strange insertion of an animated dream sequence is entirely out of place.
It's a shame, too, because Keaton and Kline are a moviegoer's dream marriage. They alone keep any film watchable. A question: Has anyone aged more luminously than Keaton? Having little to sink her teeth into here doesn't prevent her from being as sparkling as usual.
"Darling Companion," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 for some sexual content including references, and language. Running time: 103 minutes.