In “Must Love Dogs,” Diane Lane plays a divorced preschool teacher in her 40s, a far cry from the searching housewife in sordid affair with a kinky French book dealer she took on in “Unfaithful,” but what’re you going to do. Since her Academy Award nomination, the luminous actress has jumped from one romantic comedy to the next, this time following in the “You’ve Got Mail” tradition and tackling the growing trend toward online dating.
Sarah (Lane) spends most of her time moping around, fighting off a deep reluctancy to get back into the dating game. She’s ultimately forced to date again when her sister (Elizabeth Perkins) posts a profile for her on a dating site. Citing that she loves dogs, the profile catches the attention of the friend of another broken-hearted divorcee (John Cusack) who spends his hours building boats and obsessively watching “Doctor Zhivago.” The sparks are there as Jake falls for the confused romantic, but Sarah’s more resistant as she also sets her sights on one of her student’s fathers (Dermot Mulroney).
Based on the chick-lit novel by Claire Cook, “Must Love Dogs” was adapted and directed by Gary David Goldberg, best known for creating the award-winning Michael J. Fox sitcoms “Family Ties” and “Spin City.” It would seem like a given that someone who’s mastered the art of crafting robust half-hour comedies would churn out a witty romance, but surprisingly, Goldberg’s screenplay is downright flat and fails to engage audiences with a derivative narrative of loss and hearts on the mend.
Unfortunately, Goldberg seems perfectly content to ground his humor and characters in all the usual conventions of the genre. The vulnerabilities of the characters are predictable and their quirks have been explored better in other screen romances. The plot is also loosely drawn and often tiresome, as Sarah is given one opportunity too many to wallow and show she’s afraid of getting hurt again.
Worse yet, the movie’s “laughs,” which are scant enough as it is, are mild and uninspired. Its humor is ignited from the most predictable situations, mainly the uncertainty of Internet dating (which Goldberg also critiques in a random scene featuring Stockard Channing). He also introduces plenty of throwaway characters, such as a gay teacher that Sarah knows and Jake’s womanizing best friend. The film is topped off with generic directorial style (complete with dating stories that bookend the movie), making it clear that Goldberg’s talents simply aren’t suited for 90-minute stories.
The only times that the movie is entertaining and even remotely interesting are when the leads share the screen together. Lane and Cusack, her with a quiet radiance and him with a wry sense of humor, have an easy-going, very natural chemistry, and their scenes are charming and authentic — even when they head into clichéd territory. But because the story focuses mainly on Sarah, these moments are few and too far between.
The film ends with a familiar mad dash and storybook ending, which seems to satisfy everyone. But as the plots get schmaltzier and the stars prettier, you have to wonder: Will the date-movie set ever realize that they’re essentially seeing the same movie over and over?
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars