“Darling Companion”: A death knell for the baby boom?

Lawrence Kasdan's "Big Chill" baby-boom trilogy reaches its end with a whimper (and a woof) in "Darling Companion" VIDEO

Topics: Darling Companion, Movies,

"Darling Companion": A death knell for the baby boom?Diane Keaton in "Darling Companion"

If you consider yourself a movie buff and have only a vague idea of who Lawrence Kasdan is, or none at all, then you’re almost certainly on the dewy side of 35. Bursting onto the Hollywood scene in the early ’80s as the writer-director of “Body Heat” and “The Big Chill,” not to mention the principal screenwriter for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” Kasdan was one of the hottest guys in the business for at least a decade. Today, although he’s younger than Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese (and only a few years older than the Coen brothers, for instance), Kasdan looks like a flailing, irrelevant has-been. His entire career, and his unfortunate and completely uninteresting new movie, “Darling Companion,” which is about a bunch of rich white people looking for a lost dog, illustrates the dangers of attaching yourself firmly to a generational identity. In other words: Ask not for whom the mutt woofs, Lena Dunham. It woofs for thee.

“Darling Companion” is supposed to be the third film in an operatic trilogy of ensemble pieces about the baby-boom generation’s progress through life, one that began with “The Big Chill” in 1983 and continued with “Grand Canyon” in 1992. If that sounds a little depressing, you haven’t even seen the movie yet. Whatever the real or imagined crimes of the boomers may be, they don’t deserve this pallid, embarrassing canine comedy that squanders a cast of terrific actors on playing 1 percenters trapped in a Colorado resort community. And I don’t even want to talk about the sexy, sultry Gypsy fortune teller (played by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) who keeps having visions of where the dog might be, or what colorful local yokels he may have encountered. Doesn’t the Roma community have some equivalent to GLAAD or the NAACP? Get on it, people! Zurer’s character may or may not reflect actual bigotry, but New Age idiocy is almost as bad.



Kasdan was himself 34 when he released “The Big Chill,” his second film as a writer-director after the sizzling neo-noir “Body Heat,” and thereby became the self-appointed priest of boomer self-regard. I don’t know whether I’d view it more generously today, but at the time “The Big Chill” struck me as a highly effective morass of manufactured emotion. Telling the interlocking stories of a group of former college pals coming to grips with adulthood after the early death of one of their number, it set the template for a sentimental, day-of-reckoning genre that’s been popular ever since (but which Kasdan did not invent, to be sure), launched the white-people Motown revival craze of the early ’80s, and propelled several of its cast members, including Glenn Close, William Hurt and Jeff Goldblum, onto star trajectories. It also marked the beginning of Kasdan’s collaboration with Kevin Kline, who has played an apparent authorial surrogate in six of the writer-director’s films. (One could argue that their careers are parallel in other ways: Both Kasdan and Kline have been productive and successful, but neither has quite fulfilled the hype of their early years.)

But here’s the main thing about “The Big Chill,” seen from this distance: It was clearly a personal film in a way that “Body Heat,” and Kasdan’s screenplays for George Lucas and Spielberg, had not been. It was such a huge success, and touched the lives of such a vast cohort of baby boomers who were then around 30, that it sent him in entirely the wrong direction. I get it, actually. It would have required superhuman willpower to say: Well, I told a story about my own life and got three Oscar nominations, and a whole generation of college-educated white folks bought into it as being their story too. But I should just go back to writing thrillers and adventure movies because that’s what I’m actually good at!

Of course Kasdan saw the post-”Chill” period as a chance to indulge his grandest personal ambitions; anyone would have. He made a game effort to resuscitate the big-budget western around Kevin Costner, not once but twice (“Silverado” in 1985, which is pretty good, and the lumbering “Wyatt Earp” in 1994), adapted the most popular novel of fellow boomer avatar Anne Tyler (“The Accidental Tourist”), and even wrote a screenplay designed to turn doomed R&B superstar Whitney Houston into an actress (“The Bodyguard”). But all of that wraps around the release of “Grand Canyon,” a multi-stranded tale of life in Los Angeles that prefigures Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winning “Crash” and stands, for better or worse — and there’s plenty of both — as the apogee of Kasdania.

“Grand Canyon” (co-written with Meg Kasdan, Lawrence’s wife) came out at almost the exact moment when Bill Clinton became the leading candidate of the 1992 election, and the two phenomena are closely aligned (at least for me) as markers of the boom generation’s political and cultural ascendancy. Mawkish, sincere, self-indulgent and daring (and in all those ways like Clinton himself), “Grand Canyon” has no shortage of ambition. It tries to break out of the prison of privileged whiteness Kasdan had captured in “Big Chill,” depicting Kline’s affluent lawyer character’s awkward struggle to befriend a black tow-truck driver (Danny Glover) who has rescued him from muggers. (As in “Big Chill” and “Darling Companion,” Kasdan apparently drew on incidents from life.) It compiles a veritable laundry list of early-’90s obsessions, from urban crime and child abuse to violence in the media and the black-white racial divide (one of several meanings of the title). “Grand Canyon” is simultaneously a much worse and much better film than “The Big Chill”: It’s more self-indulgent and less clearly organized, but its grasp is also much larger.

Kasdan has made only four films in the 21 years since “Grand Canyon,” and none since “Dreamcatcher” in 2003. (Did you see it? Me neither.) All I really need to tell you about “Darling Companion” is this: Those who have seen “Grand Canyon” will recall that one of the film’s numerous crises arises when Mary McDonnell, playing the wife of Kline’s character, finds an abandoned baby when she’s out jogging and tries to adopt it. In the new movie the same thing happens again. Except that it’s Diane Keaton, being all zany and dotty in her inimitable style as the wife of Kline’s ultra-rich spine surgeon. And she finds a dog, not a baby. Oh, and she’s not jogging, she’s driving. And it’s beside the freeway in Denver, not in L.A. In other words, the drama has been dialed down from, like, 11 to 0.8 across the board, and it doesn’t improve from there.

Now, just to be clear: Apparently Meg Kasdan really did rescue a lost dog from the freeway, and good for her. Then it apparently got lost again, and I’m sure that was painful. I do not begrudge these nice people their dog, either in the movies or in real life, and just about the only flash of self-awareness you will find in “Darling Companion” (again co-written with Meg) lies in the observation that pets take on an outsize importance in the lives of empty-nesters as they draw near to old age. (I have no problem, in a general way, with movies about dogs, although I’m not sure I will ever inflict “Sounder” upon my children.) Indeed, the 60-something empty-nester phenomenon is rife with dramatic and comic possibility, but this zero-wattage knockoff of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which features Kline, Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass and the aforementioned offensive but smokin’ Gypsy seeress stumbling through the Rocky Mountain forests after the missing pooch, captures none of it.

Kasdan never spoke for an entire generation when he was a huge success, and he doesn’t now. It absolutely isn’t fair to claim that his failed trilogy tells us anything about the failure of America’s effusive, optimistic, would-be-world-transforming postwar generation. But it sure is tempting. Because the tragedy of “Darling Companion” isn’t that it’s a silly and inconsequential movie about some old people and a dog but that it’s such a blind, closed and cosseted movie, depicting an isolated world of rootless characters who have sealed themselves off in a beautiful nowheresville far away from the social conflicts Kasdan once tried to wrestle with so vividly. The doggie in “Darling Companion” is a big, warm bundle of puppy love; his owners are lost forever in a big chill.

“Darling Companion” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>