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Archive for Friday, July 29, 2005

Same dog, old tricks breed formulaic romantic comedy

July 29, 2005

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So here's the first thing you have to do before walking in to see "Must Love Dogs": Suspend all disbelief and assume that Diane Lane is incapable of finding a date on her own.

What's harder is ignoring the fact that beneath the pedigree of its writer-director (sitcom veteran Gary David Goldberg) and the weight of its cast (John Cusack, Christopher Plummer, Stockard Channing) beats the heart of an unabashedly hackneyed chick flick.

All the conventions of the genre are there -the meddling but well-intentioned friends and relatives, the obligatory montage of bad first dates, the guy who seems like Mr. Right (Dermot Mulroney), the real Mr. Right (Cusack) and the many misunderstandings and obstacles that keep our reluctant heroine from him.

You know it's bad when half the cast spontaneously bursts into song - a cringe-inducing rendition of "The Partridge Family" theme - in a trailer, no less. (Though considering the presence of Plummer and Channing during this ditty, couldn't they have whipped out a hit from "The Sound of Music" or "Grease"?)

Diane Lane, left, and John Cusack star in "Must Love Dogs," a romantic comedy that opens today in Lawrence.

Diane Lane, left, and John Cusack star in "Must Love Dogs," a romantic comedy that opens today in Lawrence.

No matter. You've heard this song before.

Lane's character, preschool teacher Sarah Nolan, has been divorced for several months. The members of her large, wisecracking, Irish-Catholic family insist that she's been single for far too long and conspire to find her a man.

The most brazen among them, sisters Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) and Christine (Ali Hillis), take the liberty of posting Sarah's puffed-up profile on an Internet dating service. (Not that she needs the puffery. She's good-natured. She loves kids. There seems to be nothing wrong with her - though she has so few discernible character traits, it's hard to tell. Plus, she looks like Diane Lane.)

Movie
Must Love Dogs * 1/2

The first thing one has to do is suspend all disbelief and assume that Diane Lane is incapable of finding a date on her own. What's harder is ignoring the fact that beneath the pedigree of its director (sitcom veteran Gary David Goldberg) and the weight of its cast (which includes John Cusack) beats the heart of a hackneyed chick flick.

Get movie listings, reviews, and more at lawrence.com

Simultaneously, the recently separated and lovelorn Jake Anderson, an overly romantic boat builder, is nursing his wounds at home with repeated viewings of "Doctor Zhivago." His meddling, wisecracking buddy is a lawyer. (Insert standard lawyer joke here. Or don't bother - Goldberg has done it for you. The humor that fit just fine on the TV series he created, "Family Ties" and "Spin City," feels uncomfortably corny on the big screen.)

And so it's only a matter of time before they "meet cute" - though their first date is truly awkward - at the dog park. Sarah's online profile includes the words "Must Love Dogs," which also is the title of the Claire Cook novel on which the movie is based. But Sarah doesn't have a dog, so she borrows her brother's big, goofy Newfoundland. Jake doesn't have a dog either, so he borrows a West Highland Terrier who knows how to play dead. The dog also watches the most poignant scenes in "Doctor Zhivago" along with Jake - if only because it makes for cute-doggie cutaways.

The chemistry Cusack and Lane share in their scenes comes from Cusack alone. Lane can be lovely in a romantic comedy - she was in "Under the Tuscan Sun" - but she simply doesn't have much to work with here. Cusack's character, meanwhile, is so effusive in his neediness and eloquent in his idealistic platitudes about love, he's a nonstop energy source.

"He's looking for the whole dance, and I'm just starting to relearn the steps," Sarah tells her widower father, played by Plummer with typical resonance.

It's as if Cusack is still playing his "Say Anything" character, Lloyd Dobler, still standing outside the bedroom window of the woman he loves. Only now he would be blaring Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" from an iPod attached to portable speakers instead of a boom box.

Wait, don't even let the idea of that enter your mind. That would have been a better movie.

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