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MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Darling Companion

DARLING COMPANION (Three Stars)
U.S.: Lawrence Kasdan, 2012
 
Darling Companion is Lawrence and Meg Kasdan’s highly personal dog story about a beloved mutt who gets lost in the Rockies after a wedding party — and about all the humorously dramatic and comically serious interactions of the upper middle class 50something ensemble of doctors and wives and friends and gypsy housekeepers who try to find the vamoosed pooch. Despite papa Kasdan’s reputation, and a stellar cast, it’s been so eviscerated by so many critics, that my enjoyment of the movie (and I did enjoy it, right up to the unfortunately phony ending) may register as some kind of perverse AARP-truckling contrarianism.
But I thought there were a lot of good things in Companion, beginning with its excellent age-diverse cast (Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, Elisabeth Moss and Sam Shepard). There‘s also a lot of wit, craft and feeling in the piece and grace, intelligence and emotion in the Kasdans’ script and in director Lawrence’s low-pressure naturalistic staging.
The movie has its flaws — that outlandishly implausible ending chiefly among them — but compared to most of the un-naturalistic, unfunny, unserious, totally phony and sometimes obnoxiously ageist and condescendingly smart-ass gloppy stuff that often passes for American movie comedy-drama these days (and that sometimes gets a pass from the same people who pile on movies like Darling Companion), it’s a movie that deserves some encouragement. I’d rather see more movies like this, with good parts for top notch actors like Kline, Keaton, Wiest and Jenkins than eight more glam-as-usual youth-besotted shows starring Justin Timberlake or Katherine Heigl and the usual suspects, with or without lost dogs.
In this case, the dog in question is Freeway (played by the estimable Kasey, who really doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves). Freeway is found, in bad shape, by the side of a Denver freeway, by nervous, luminous spine surgeon’s wife Beth Winter (Keaton) and her picky daughter Grace (Moss), and he’s rescued, brought to a shelter, and saved by a charming vet named Sam (Jay Ali). Freeway becomes the catatlyst for the eventual wedding of Grace and Sam — at a Rocky Mountain High gathering also attended by Beth’s gifted sardonic, full-of-himself husband Joseph (Kline, terrific), earthy sister Penny (Wiest), Penny’s doctor son Bryan (indie notable Duplass) and Penny’s nice-guy fiance Russell (Jenkins), who triggers merriment when he announces his plans for opening an English pub in the Midwest. Also present; prescient gypsy housekeeper Carmen (Zurer) and cantankerous local sheriff Morris (Shepard).
An excellent cast, and they all seem to be having a good time. The plot shifts into higher geer when Freeway gets lost in the woods, thanks to some cell-phone-induced inattention by Joseph, who may be jealous of the fact that his wife showings more effection to the dog than to him. But Jospeh and all the others, an empathetic bunch, go along with Beth when she insists on a search for Freeway. (This dog hunt was inspired by the Kasdans’ own loss of a well-loved mutt named Mac, and a search for him that lasted even longer than the one here.)
Much like Kasdan‘s best-liked movie The Big Chill, several geneations ago (a show that also starred Kline), Darling Companion gets a lot of mileage out of its highly talented ensemble. The movie also shows a lot of affection for these fictional but believable people and nicely plays on our cioncern about the dog — an emotion probably felt by anyone who’s ever had an animal for a friend, especially one that came, as Freeway, mac and Kasey all did, from a shelter. Although I’m in a minority, I liked the movie, and I was especially happy to see an ensemble that came from a variety of age groups, and didn’t try to dismiss its oldsters as cutesy comic relief.

We’d be better off with more movies that tried to deal with a much wider range of people and problems, including, of course, different classes and social backgrounds — and that managed it all with the likability and skill and sympathy of Darling Companion.

SPOILER ALERT

By the way, in real life, the Kasdan family’s Mac was discovered by a local who read one of their numerous signs and had taken the lost dog in. I wish they’d used that for the ending here. It could have been a much more believable and even moving wrap-up than the one here. But I’ll cut some slack for people that so unashamedly love their dog.

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Wilmington

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MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

INTERVIEWER
Do you outline plays before you start to write them?

PINTER
Not at all. I don’t know what kind of characters my plays will have until they…well, until they are. Until they indicate to me what they are. I don’t conceptualize in any way. Once I’ve got the clues I follow them—that’s my job, really, to follow the clues.

INTERVIEWER
What do you mean by clues? Can you remember how one of your plays developed in your mind—or was it a line-by-line progression?

PINTER
Of course I can’t remember exactly how a given play developed in my mind. I think what happens is that I write in a very high state of excitement and frustration. I follow what I see on the paper in front of me—one sentence after another. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a dim, possible overall idea—the image that starts off doesn’t just engender what happens immediately, it engenders the possibility of an overall happening, which carries me through. I’ve got an idea of what might happen—sometimes I’m absolutely right, but on many occasions I’ve been proved wrong by what does actually happen. Sometimes I’m going along and I find myself writing “C. comes in” when I didn’t know that he was going to come in; he had to come in at that point, that’s all.
~ Harold Pinter

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