Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Must Love Dogs

MUST LOVE DOGS (Gary David Goldberg, 2005)

Sarah’s sister places an online personal ad for her, Jake’s friend answers it for him, and thus the recently divorced singles are introduced in MUST LOVE DOGS. Diane Lane and John Cusack star as the potential couple in a romantic comedy that takes its title from one of the stipulations in Sarah’s ad. (It’s either a brave or foolish choice considering the easy target it gives headline writers and dissatisfied critics.) Sarah is a preschool teacher who struggles with self-worth. John, who has one of those only-in-the-movies jobs building handcrafted teak sculls, has plenty of passion but doubts he can find the right woman.

For better and worse, the pieces comprising MUST LOVE DOGS are borrowed from every other romantic comedy. The film works far too hard, and unconvincingly, to keep Sarah and Jake apart. Is it indicative of the times that in spite of technology’s ability to connect us anywhere and anytime, so many people feel isolated? How many contemporary films in this genre expend more energy separating the lovers than showing them together? One of the things I liked so much about FEVER PITCH with Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore was how the Farrelly brothers concentrated on the couple’s interactions and let the relationship grow naturally. MUST LOVE DOGS believes in instant magic, which is fine for a fantasy but insufficient for a good love story.

Despite too many “colorful” supporting characters, the obligatory montage of absurdly bad blind dates, and the impromptu group sing-a-long, MUST LOVE DOGS works because the two leads are very appealing. Lane, playing a less impulsive variation of her UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN character, makes Sarah’s confusion and desperation charming rather than insufferably cutesy. With great aplomb Cusack does another version of the soulful, intelligent guy that has been his stock in trade for twenty years. He rattles off one funny line after another. More scenes between Sarah and Jake would have improved MUST LOVE DOGS, yet in the film’s sitcom-like approach—no surprise since writer-director Gary David Goldberg created FAMILY TIES and SPIN CITY—Lane and Cusack locate the humanity that has audiences falling for this stuff no matter how familiar it is.

Grade: B-

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the August 2, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

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