What planet does this movie take place on? I find myself asking that question often in today’s romantic-comedy market, and Must Love Dogs is no exception. Since apparently no one can fall in love anymore without it being due to deception and lies, Must Love Dogs lives and dies by the red herring and ludicrous contrivance. Why can’t more screenwriters and filmmakers be taking notes from Love Actually?
The film takes place in the kind of parallel universe where Diane Lane cannot get a date. In the film Lane portrays Sarah Nolan, a recently divorced teacher whose husband “just stopped loving her” and took off with a twenty-something blonde. Her students adore her, but she doesn’t seem to be a hot item on the dating market. This seems to cause a rather disturbing amount of concern to her entire family, particularly her sister, Carol (Perkins), who is so annoying she comes off as the evil Caucasian spawn of Star Jones. Sarah’s entire family is so involved with her romantic life that I simply cannot imagine any rational person putting up with it. Her father, Bill (Plummer), has three girlfriends, including biker chick Dolly (Channing). All he can do is reassure Sarah that the perfect man is out there. Yawn.
Enter Jake (Cusack), also recently divorced but not interested in dating for the time being. His horn ball attorney friend, Charlie (Ben Shenkman), wants to hear nothing of the like. Jake is completely dedicated to his boat-building business, where the running joke is that he has not sold one boat. It must be depressing to be divorced and flat broke.
In one of those crazy coincidences, Carol puts Sarah’s profile on perfectmatch.com (there, I said it, now give me my fifty bucks) and Charlie does the same to Jake. Soon the two meet, there’s a middleman red herring subplot, and you can pretty much take it from there.
Must Love Dogs has absolutely nothing to add to the genre. The film is so by-the-books that even the rom-com novice can accurately predict the plot arcs and twists. This is particularly troubling considering the talent involved. John Cusack, who has all but pigeonholed himself as the go-to-guy if you need a romantically-challenged loser who can still look cool in a black trench coat, is capable of so much more, and we know this because of his role in the infinitely more articulate and insightful High Fidelity. Cusack’s knack for dry humor and timing is still fervently on display, but where’s the depth? Things are even worse for Diane Lane, who rides the fine line between sitcom-level antics and flat-out over-acting. Upon finding out she slept with another prick, she cries in the shower as if Oprah just got canceled.
Writer/Director Gary David Goldberg’s script, which he adapted from Claire Cook’s novel of the same name, has some zingers but never maintains a steady diet of laughs. There is a nicely executed scene in which Sarah answers her father’s dating ad and another that features a rat race around the city in search of a condom, but the rest of the film is bogged down with clichés and a total excess of characters. We have the countless family members, the annoying sister, the gay friends, the father and his girlfriends, Jake’s friend, the red herring “other man,” and more. The film collapses under the weight of these underdeveloped characters that are only in the story to begin with in the hopes of getting a chuckle.
For couples in search of a mindless, instantly forgettable fluff film, Must Love Dogs will get the job done. To me it seems like this is a genre that should excel with insight (not be confused with glaring generalizations, as so many Hollywood pictures are loaded with) and true emotion, rather than manipulation and deceit. Must Love Dogs is finished with the cookie cutter; it’s time to pass it on.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 98 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content.
Theatrical Release: July 29, 2005
Directed by: Gary David Goldberg
Written by: Gary David Goldberg. Based upon the novel by Claire Cook.
Cast: Diane Lane, John Cusack, Elizabeth Perkins, Christopher Plummer, Dermot Mulroney, Stockard Channing