In Darling Companion, opening Friday in Philadelphia, Diane Keaton plays an empty-nester whose life becomes revived when she takes in—and falls in love with—a stray dog. A year later, when the dog, now named Freeway, runs into the woods, her family searches desperately for the animal. Keaton and her career-driven, impatient husband (Kevin Kline) even get lost looking for Freeway, but do find each other.
Lawrence Kasdan’s comedy-drama is benign to the point of blandness, sitcomish in its pacing and lack of urgency. Something is dreadfully wrong when a talented ensemble including Keaton, Kline, and Mark Duplass appears tranquilized. Save for Richard Jenkins, who brings care and craftsmanship to any movie he’s in, regardless of its quality.
Maybe everyone else knew they were in another movie about a dog serving as a balm for the soul and figured, why bother?
This genre should have stopped years ago. Before I go any further, let me be clear: I’m neither a dog lover nor am I an animal lover. I have a hard time getting along with people, so I’d rather not take my chances with a different species. But as someone with an unquenchable love for movies and books, entertainment rules. And dogs, in the hands of the uncreative, become a lazy way to express obvious lessons about life and death and the humdrum’s chewy middle.
Still convinced I’m a heartless cad? Think of it another way. Many people in deep, soulful relationships abhor movies like The Lucky One and The Vow. Do these men and women—including myself—automatically dismiss romance? No. They just hate shitty movies, especially if Nicholas Sparks is involved.
My disdain for canine cinema can be traced to two reasons:
1. If a dog is part of your life for years, of course the animal will become significant to you. That’s obvious. Dog-centric movies and books don’t go that route, of course. And with one trip to the pound, and one look at that rumpled adorable face, Sandra Sadsack’s fate changed forever … John learned about himself in a whole new way when Puddles entered the picture. Then “Love Song,” or some other spirited top 40 tune from a summer or two ago, plays.
Life always changes when you start caring about someone else, whether it’s your spouse, your kids, or, yes, a dog. That’s one of life’s great gifts: There’s always the possibility you’ll find someone else you love more than yourself. And when that happens, life will present itself with all kinds of lessons. Have musicians with their insufferable, syrupy ballads about their newborn kids and inspiring partners—or whomever they’re currently sleeping with—taught us nothing?
2. Dogs have short lives. So not only do we get lesson-learning and self-reflection, but death, the perfect clarifier. The dog’s utility as a hokey dramatic device is astounding. In Darling Companion, the missing Freeway allows the screenwriters (Kasdan and his wife, Meg) to concoct a homespun, folksy search drama featuring laconic sheriffs and prediction-spewing Gypsies. The best movies I’ve seen about canine companionship—My Dog Skip and My Dog Tulip—cover the regenerating, everyday aspects of dog ownership. More importantly, both weren’t overwhelmed by the stench of death or other theatrics.
Here’s the bottom line: Writers and directors need to tell us something we don’t already know, something that everyone can appreciate, not just the millions who got misty-eyed over Marley & Me. Demographics and popularity can’t rule everything.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to watch a movie about teenage vampires who are in a pop band. It’s a sequel based on a Parker Brothers board game.