While watching "Must Love Dogs," a romanticcomedy about moving on from divorc=E9e depression, I was sure this wouldbe a three-star review. The leads -- Diane Lane and John Cusack -- areirresistibly charismatic but accessible, the writing is wonderfully witty,and the story has a good hook: the travails of internet dating for peoplewho are still young, but too mature and serious about love for delvinginto the meat market of bars and nightclubs.
This was going to be a three-star review because of theway writer-director Gary David Goldberg (adapting Claire Cook's popularnovel) deliberately flirted with and skirted around romantic comedy cliches,making the story familiar yet fresh:
Custom boat builder Cusack and preschool teacher Lane meetearly on (in a park with borrowed dogs they both pretended to own in theirpersonal ads) and have a string of funny -- and perhaps a little too frank-- misfire dates that retain just enough chemistry to keep them both interested.But at the same time Lane, eight months out from being dumped for a youngerwoman and egged on by a family of amusingly well-intentioned busybodies,experiences bad date montages with other men. And Cusack wallows in a littleself-inflicted depression over his own divorce by watching "DoctorZhivago" at least once a day, slumped on his couch like a pile oflaundry.
This was going to be a three-star review right up untilthe movie's final five minutes, which are so much worse than any of thegenre hallmarks "Must Love Dogs" goes out of its way to set upand knock down -- so much more sappy, saccharine, ridiculous and contrived-- that it broke the picture's charming spell.
The more I thought about "Must Love Dogs," theworse it seemed. While Lane and Cusack each give winning performances thatmake you fall in love with them separately, the chemistry that keeps thecharacters interested in each other never develops into real magnetism.Sparks do not fly.
While the screenplay is blessed with realistic setbacks(not manufactured misunderstandings) and loaded with breezy one-linersand clever bon mots about modern love (made even better by the disarming,unaffected delivery of the stars), it's also burdened with stock characterslike Lane's gay best friend and a rival for her affections (Durmot Mulroney)who is far too obviously Mr. Wrong. Even when there are bumps in the road,the film lacks any suspense about where her relationship with Cusack isheaded.
And while Cusack's very nature gives his character Everyg=uycredibility, upon closer examination he's really an absurdly flawless fantasyconcoction of a design-by-committee Perfect Man for the film's single-female-in-her-late-30starget audience. He's a craftsman with an artistic soul (he hand-buildsteak crew-racing rowboats, even though they don't sell). He's sensitiveand vulnerable, but confident enough to be himself and look a little goofyin front of the male-wary Lane. He gives speeches to his horny best friendabout how he wants nothing to do with younger women because they're notseasoned enough to be interesting. He even turns down a perky 24-year-oldknockout who throws herself at him -- twice.
"Must Love Dogs" has so much going for it --including sublime performances from Christopher Plummer as Lane's widowerdad, Elizabeth Perkins as her "snap out of it!" sister, and StockardChanning as Dad's new girlfriend, an aging trailer park tart in turquoisejewelry -- that for many it may be worth seeing in spite of its flaws.
But the film's curdled aftertaste is so frustrating thatit may be hard to remember why "Must Love Dogs" ever seemed soendearing and entertaining in the first place.