diane_keaton_darling_companionThe spirit of the Littlest Hobo is very much alive in “Darling Companion.” The homeless German Shepherd of the TV series (which was based on a 1958 movie of the same name) dropped into people’s lives for thirty minutes every Saturday morning, bringing with him goodwill and understanding.

Freeway, the homeless dog of “Darling Companion,” doesn’t get up to exactly the same tricks as the Littlest Hobo. He doesn’t help rescue a Prima Ballerina who wants to defect from her Iron Curtain captors or protect an elderly prospector from greedy land-grabbers, but by going on a wild adventure, he does bring one family closer together.

When we first meet Freeway he’s an abandoned dog on the side of the… you guessed it, freeway. In quick succession Beth (Diane Keaton) and daughter Grace (“Mad Men’s” Elisabeth Moss) rescue the mangy mutt, Grace falls for the dog’s vet and in the length of one musical montage, Beth adopts and falls in love with the dog. Tragedy strikes, however, when Beth’s egotistical surgeon husband Joseph (Kevin Kline), allows the dog to wander off.  Distraught, Beth searches for Freeway—along with family and friends—for three days. In those seventy-two hours they not only hunt for the dog but for meaning in their relationships.

Lawrence Kasdan wrote (with wife Meg) and directed “Darling Companion” and many of the trademarks of his best work are evident here–the ensemble cast à la “The Big Chill,” “The Accidental Tourist’s” distant lead male character—but what isn’t here is subtext. Kasdan’s other movies have been rich examinations of the inner workings of life.

On the surface “The Big Chill” was about a disparate group of friends who danced in the kitchen and attended their friend’s funeral, but underneath it all it really was about the renewal of hope in the character’s lives.

That’s the thing that made “The Big Chill” an enduring classic. “Darling Companion,” on the other hand is mostly about people looking for a dog. There are lots of nice moments during the search but it takes up virtually the entire movie and there simply isn’t enough going on to justify the running time. The plot contrivance of having an exotic psychic (Ayelet Zurer) as a spiritual guide for the search doesn’t help matters much.

Luckily the seasoned cast knows how to wring as much interest as possible out of the slight script. One of the film’s pleasures is watching Kline, Keaton, Richard Jenkins and Dianne Wiest glide through this material as if it was melted butter. They love, they laugh, they look (for the dog) all the while handing in performances better than the script deserves.

“Darling Companion” is a well-intentioned, gently paced movie about how people react in a crisis but could have used some more real drama. Where’s the Littlest Hobo when you really need him?