"Must Love Dogs," a catchy title for what is otherwise a textbook romantic comedy, has little to do with the canine persuasion. In actuality, it is but a ruse to make divorced, hopelessly single preschool teacher Sarah (Diane Lane) sound accessible when her prying sister, Carol (Elizabeth Perkins), sets up a personals ad for her on an Internet dating service. The lacking-in-confidence Sarah, whose big extended family also includes a younger sister, Christine (Ali Hillis), and an oft-dating widower father, Bill (Christopher Plummer), likes dogs well enough, but doesn't have one of her own. Borrowing her brother's enormous Newfoundland, Mother Teresa, for the afternoon, she has a disastrous first meeting with the also recently divorced and dogless Jake (John Cusack), a hopeless romantic and "Dr. Zhivago" fanatic in search of a love story to call his own.
Jake gradually finds that love story in "Must Love Dogs," but it won't be going down in any world records book. In fact, Sarah and Jake's romance, which is meant to be the picture's centerpiece, gets lost in the shuffle of a script by writer-director Gary David Goldberg that never finds its rightful focus. Secondary characters are needlessly plentifulthere's parents, friends, relatives, coworkers, failed dates, and other acquaintances to wade throughas are the subplots. Most extraneous is the introduction of a second possible suitor for Sarah, handsome single father Bob (Dermot Mulroney), who isn't quite the perfect catch she initially imagines him to be. This storyline goes nowhere and takes up far too much of the screen time that should have gone to developing the relationship between Sarah and Jake. Most of the film sees these two apart, and while Diane Lane (2003's "Under the Tuscan Sun
") and John Cusack (2003's "Identity
") have some sweet moments together, including a desperate extended search late at night for condoms, they are disappointingly sparse.
Directed in as straightforward a fashion as could be imagined by Gary David Goldberg, "Must Love Dogs" would be completely bland if not for a handful of spry dialogue zingers and an overall quick-witted comic sensibility. Jake and Sarah's path toward ending up together is, like all Hollywood rom-coms, predictable, and so it is what happens before this foreseeable denouement that movies of this ilk rely on to give them their own spunky identity. Sarah's friendship with the aging, patient Dolly (Stockard Channing), one of her father's many girlfriends, is believable and understated, and Stockard Channing (2003's "Anything Else
") is touching as a woman who has long since accepted her lot in life, but it belongs in a different film. An impromptu song-and-dance to David Cassidy's "Come On, Get Happy," rings terribly false and admittedly feels like a desperate plea to duplicate a similar scene from 1997's "My Best Friend's Wedding." Sarah's sisters, most notably Carol, don't come off as caring so much as nosey, as if their life revolves only around getting her a date. And as for Sarah, the picture portrays her as an attractive forty-year-old woman who needs a man to define her, as if there is nothing else in her life that could make her happy.
Diane Lane, a natural beauty who has opted to age gracefully on screen rather than paralyze her face with Botox, is likable in these kinds of roles because one can relate to her. She doesn't try to look younger than she is, and remains pretty while looking like an everyday woman rather than a made-up "movie star." As Sarah, Lane plays a part similar to the one in "Under the Tuscan Sun
," but she does it well. John Cusack, his puppy-dog eyes and laid-back demeanor in check, is one of the finest screen performers working today. So natural is he that he makes acting look nothing less than easy, all the while never failing to shade his characters with small interesting details and more depth that can be found on the written page. Such is the case with Jake, a rather underwhelming role far beneath Cusack's level of talent. Previous incendiary romances with Cusack like 1989's "Say Anything..." and 2001's "Serendipity
" only go to show how threadbare this one really is. Those had an immediacy and sweeping quality to them; this one simply drags through the conventional paces.
"Must Love Dogs" is sometimes funny, and on occasion kind of effective in its quieter character moments, but the romance between Sarah and Jakeindeed, the only reason for the picture's existencefalls flat. Writer-director Gary David Goldberg hasn't made a dumb film, though. He paints his ensemble with few stereotypes (there is even a well-adjusted gay couple who, for once in studio filmmaking, aren't portrayed as raging queens), and refreshingly avoids a lot of the "idiot plot" traps (the overrated "Wedding Crashers
" being the most recent example) that are so often frustrating in this genre. Sure, thankless complications still arise, but Sarah and Jake handle them for the most part in mature ways that real-life people in similar situations would. When irrationality does enter the frame, as in a climactic scene where Sarah jumps into a freezing cold lake to get Jake's attention, the characters are smart enough to actually call attention to the fact. It is at the level of chemistry, then, where the film falters. The story of Sarah and Jake is a forgettable, thinly written one, missing the much-needed layers that the rest of the pointless subplots not involving them have been given. Ultimately, "Must Love Dogs" lacks the requisite passion and urgency to make the experience anything more than a periodically pleasant waste of time.