Not all marital matches are, metaphorically speaking, made in heaven. Take the case of Joseph and Beth Winter. Though they've steadfastly weathered decades together, raising two daughters along the way, their union is showing signs of strain. He's a perfectionist, workaholic back surgeon. She's high strung and given to spontaneous emotive outbursts and panic attacks.
It's not a good combination. And after years of sweeping those differences under the carpet, they're finally out in the open, courtesy of … a new dog.
The couple's carefully constructed cordiality begins to crumble the day Beth and her adult daughter Grace spy a mangled mutt just off the freeway in Denver. One thing leads to another, and the newly rescued pup—quickly dubbed Freeway—is at home getting a bath after having his wounds treated by a kind veterinarian named Sam. Soon, love is in the air … between Beth and her new pooch, as well as between Grace and Sam.
Fast-forward a year: Sam and Grace are tying the knot at the Winters' cozy Rocky Mountain cabin. Family has flown in to celebrate the blessed event, including Beth's other daughter and her young son; Joseph's recently retired sister, Penny, and her overbearing new boyfriend, Russell; and Penny's grown son, Bryan, who (thanks to help from Joseph) is also a surgeon.
And, of course, Freeway is there too, sitting at Beth's feet as Grace lovingly steps over him en route to the altar.
Everything is going quite swimmingly until Joseph takes Freeway for a walk in the woods. Off his leash. He answers a phone call—Joseph, not the dog—and promptly loses Freeway. In the Colorado wilderness.
Not to worry, Joseph tries to convince his wife. It's no big deal. He'll be back. After all, dogs cross whole continents looking for missing owners, right? Right!? Besides, it's time to get back to work.
But it is a big deal. And Beth is worried.
Moreover, she's mortified by her husband's callous response: "Everything is a crisis with you," he accuses. "There is no sense of proportion." But Beth has a character assessment of her own to deliver to her self-absorbed mate: "There are a few pivotal moments in a person's life when you react completely right or completely wrong." And there's no doubt in her mind as to which side of that fence her hardhearted husband is on.
So the search begins.
But it's not just for a lost dog. It's also for a lost marriage.
Joseph loses track of Freeway while he's talking on his cellphone on an isolated trail. And that mistake metaphorically stands in for his marriage and family as well. He's overcommitted to his work as a celebrated surgeon, and he's constantly conferring with doctors and patients on the phone. At one point, Beth says, "You know more about your patients than you do about your own family." And the accusation has the ring of truth.
"We haven't lost a person, we've lost a dog," Joseph insists. And his logical perspective has truth in it too. But it's not about logic right now for Beth. And Joseph has to be shown the value of her feelings as well. As if to drive the point home, the rest of the family, along with a few others who get drawn into the search, side with Beth. Penny and Russell cancel their departure plans, as does Bryan. And slowly Joseph realizes how much the dog means to his wife. More importantly, he sees just how absent he's been in his marriage to her and how poorly he's parented his daughters.
When Joseph and Beth get caught in a storm on a trail at night, followed by Joseph falling and hurting himself, he's forced to depend upon his wife instead of his own skills. In that process, he's humbled enough to see that his priorities and values have not been kind to his family. "The girls were really lucky they got you for a mother," he tells Beth. He also realizes he's been very hard on his wife for her weaknesses and foibles. "The things that bug me about you have never meant anything compared to how much I love you," he says.
Another interesting relational dynamic is how everyone responds to Penny's new boyfriend, Russell. He's a big talker with big plans—he hopes to open a microbrewery—but everyone fears he's a self-serving schemer who's just out to take advantage of kindhearted Penny. Russell, however, proves to be bighearted too. And he's actually very much concerned with others' welfare, so much so that he wins over everyone's loyalty and diffuses their unfounded fears about his character.
There's one more important character: a woman named Carmen who is the live-in caretaker at the Winters' cabin. She has a strong premonition that Freeway is still alive, and while the spiritual source of her hunch isn't positive, her upbeat, positive attitude about the prospect of finding Freeway is. She repeatedly counsels the family not to give up hope for the lost dog.
Carmen is of Roma gypsy descent and claims to have psychic visions, which she uses to search for Freeway. She says of her psychic abilities, "I find things—living things." She tells Bryan about the moment that her third eye opened, which she says enables her to see into the spiritual realm. She also describes the spiritual bond she once had with a now-deceased and beloved pet dog, whose eyes she says she could see through. She repeatedly describes Joseph and Beth as being "out of [spiritual] alignment" with each other.
The details of Carmen's visions are just accurate enough to cause people to think she might actually have paranormal insights. But enough facts are wrong that everyone looking for Freeway also begins to doubt her guidance. Everyone, that is, except Bryan, who falls in love with her and comes to firmly believe in her abilities.
Grace's new husband, Sam, is of Indian descent, and wedding guests greet one another with the mystically minded Namaste. A bumper sticker with that word is also glimpsed.
Bryan and Carmen kiss ... and she tells him she needs a man who can keep up with her voracious sexual appetite. We see them in bed (her bare shoulders are shown) the morning after they spend a night together.
Russell and Penny are also shown in bed, where it's obvious that he's touching her sexually under the covers. Penny describes Russell to someone as the most generous lover she's ever had and implies that they have sex frequently.
There's talk about the size of the male anatomy. Russell flirts (in a way that's ridiculous yet still wildly inappropriate) with Penny and Joseph's mother, calling her a "sexy minx."
Grace wears a shirt with a plunging neckline.
Joseph falls off a mountain trail in the dark, dislocating his shoulder. He coaches Beth on how to force it back into place (with a wince-inducing snap that knocks him unconscious). Russell and Bryan confront a disheveled mountain recluse who has a reputation for taking in stray dogs. To give Bryan time to search the man's house for Freeway (without his permission), Russell jumps on the man's back.
Freeway is covered with cuts and has bloody, matted fur when we first meet him. Beth has an (animated) nightmare about the poor pup being hunted in the wilderness by wolves and mountain lions. (He evades them by jumping off a cliff and crashing into the trees below.)
Crude or Profane Language
Beth, especially, has a penchant for exclaiming "oh god!" We hear that phrase about 35 times. "G‑‑d‑‑n" is said once. Jesus' name is taken in vain twice. There are 15 s-words, as well as a handful of uses each of "h‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑," "p‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Ten or so crude-to-vulgar references to the male anatomy include "pr‑‑k," "d‑‑k," "balls" and "cajones."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wedding guests and family members drink champagne. Russell and Bryan offer the mountain man a bottle of Scotch in exchange for information about Freeway's whereabouts. Wine is served at meals, and Joseph apparently knocks back the better part of a bottle at a cabin he and Beth break into while they're lost in the woods. We hear about Russell's plans to open an English pub in Omaha. Part of that plan includes Penny learning how to be a bartender. Passing reference is made to someone having been drunk.
Several prescription medications are mentioned. Joseph tells his wife she needs to take a Xanax. Someone jokes about needing to take Lipitor after eating rich French toast. Joseph gives his sister an anti-inflammatory drug when she hurts her knee—which she's hesitant to take because of her commitment to an all-organic, drug-free lifestyle.
Other Negative Elements
Joseph lies to Grace (who calls from her honeymoon) when she asks how Freeway is doing. Beth is relieved that he didn't tell her the truth, concerned that it would have traumatized Grace and disrupted her honeymoon.
Joseph fakes a heart attack on a plane in order to get it to turn around and land.
If you've seen the trailer for Darling Companion, you'll be forgiven for thinking it's a dog movie.
Sure, an adorable lost dog is at the concrete center of the story. But mostly we're submerged in the emotional disconnection and reunification that takes place in the relationship between a middle-aged man and his wife as they come to grips with where they lost their way. Freeway, the prodigal pooch, is "merely" the fury cipher leading them down the trail of self-discovery.
As he did with such films as Grand Canyon and The Big Chill, director Lawrence Kasdan adeptly sifts the subtle undercurrents that undermine longstanding relationships. From the outside, it seems as if the Winter family has it all. Joseph has a successful career as a doctor. And his success comes with all the trappings of the American Dream: nice house, nice cars, nice life. But Kasdan helps us see that it all requires a high price: Joseph's relationship with his wife and daughters. And things are worse than he realized.
Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Darling Companion (which is named after an old Johnny Cash song) with his wife of 41 years, Meg. And the story is based on something that actually happened to them: Kasdan did indeed lose the family dog—then found it—at a wedding the couple attended in Colorado. That dose of personal reality may help explain why the film, while tilted toward sentimentality at times, gives us an authentic-feeling journey. It's neither sappy nor syrupy to show Joseph gradually recognizing and admitting his failure as a husband and father. It's not absurd for him to make huge strides toward reconciling with his wife and daughters.
All of that is pretty redemptive stuff that makes me want to take better stock of my own roles in my family. Less inspiring is some of the film's foul language, its bits and pieces of sexual conversation and innuendo, and the role a psychic plays in finding Freeway.