Must Love Dogs (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Must Love Dogs is a product - a pre-packaged, easily-digestible motion picture designed with one particular audience in mind. You know the kind of film. You have seen it before, usually with names like Nancy Myers or Nora & Delia Ephron involved. Those with ovaries have a better chance of appreciating Must Love Dogs than those with testicles. For some members of the latter group, sitting through this will be akin to having those organs trodden upon. Must Love Dogs is bland and forgettable - a romantic comedy with affable characters and some funny lines, but where love never really takes flight. It fizzles when it should sizzle.

Sarah (Diane Lane) is a recently divorced woman who is intimidated by the thought of returning to the dating scene. Before the ink is dry on her divorce decree, various members of her family - including her forthright sister, Carol (Elizabeth Perkins), and her father, Bill (Christopher Plummer) - are urging her to get "out there." Carol even goes so far as to put Sarah's profile up at an on-line dating service, which results in a number of supposedly hilarious misfires. (One of these is funny; the rest are re-treads of bad blind dates we have seen in dozens of other movies.) Eventually, she meets Jake (John Cusack), a guy who's different from the losers she has been hooking up with. Jake has the soul of a poet and the verbiage of a philosopher, and, like Sarah, he is still coming to terms with the breakup of his marriage and no longer knows how to date. Their first encounter doesn't go well, but each is willing to try again. A threat to their newly-hatched relationship occurs when Sarah, an elementary school teacher, falls for Bob (Dermot Mulroney), the father of one of her pupils.

The strange thing about Must Love Dogs is that it's funnier than the average romantic comedy (most of which lack true, laugh-aloud humor) but less romantic. There's a great scene in which Sarah and her father are matched up for a blind date. There's a late night quest for an open drug store selling condoms. There are some pointed comments about Dr. Zhivago. And the opening "interviews" are on-target. This stuff works. Sadly, the love affair between Sarah and Jake does not. There are no sparks. They seem better suited to be best friends than lovers, and it shows. Plus, while Sarah is at home in this sort of by-the-numbers movie, Jake is out of place. He's a riff on the character John Cusack played in High Fidelity or Say Anything, and is out of step with writer/director Gary David Goldberg's screenplay. That's not a bad thing - I enjoyed watching Jake - but he's more interesting than the material surrounding him.

Maybe the relationship between Sarah and Jake would have worked if they had been given more screen time together. Unfortunately, Must Love Dogs feels the need to incorporate the age-old contrivance of "romantic complications." In this case, they are provided by Bob, who is supposed to be engaging and charismatic, but is instead boring. Dermot Mulroney looks like he's playing the part under duress. Perhaps it's a symptom of Sarah's desperation that she is attracted to this personality-deprived individual. We don't like or dislike Bob - he's just sort of there, taking up space and screen time, and limiting interaction between the protagonists. This prompts me to raise a quibble I have about romantic comedies: What's wrong with a movie that takes its full 90 minutes to develop a living, breathing relationship between two people? Why clutter things up with superfluous characters whose only purpose is to keep the lovers apart until the end?

Other romantic comedy elements are recycled from the scrap-heap. Both Sarah and Jake have support groups (although Jake's "support group" numbers one) who act as a Greek chorus in critiquing potential partners. There are several cute animals and a cuddly gay couple, who, like most gay couples in movies designed for heterosexuals, avoid anything overtly sexual so as to remain unthreatening. There's a young blond bimbo who has the hots for Jake (just to ensure that the romantic complications aren't one-sided). And the climax involves one of the parties chasing the other to make a confession of love before it's too late.

It's fair to argue that there are not many romantic comedies available featuring middle-aged characters. So why, when one is made, does it have the same rhythm as what we get with similar movies for twenty-somethings? Neither The Upside of Anger nor Something's Gotta Give was a perfect motion picture, but both took things in more interesting directions. Must Love Dogs' reluctance to put a chip in the mold becomes its undoing. Diane Lane and John Cusack are better actors than the material, but their presence will function as a chick flick magnet. Sadly, only those with minimal expectations will come away satisfied. There are things to like about Must Love Dogs, but not enough to earn it more than a half-hearted nod.

Must Love Dogs (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1