Must Love Dogs

Diane Lane, John Cusack, and Dermot Mulroney, the romantic triangle in “Must Love Dogs,” are such charming and skillful actors that they deserve better than the lame story and pedestrian direction they get from Gary David Goldberg. A high-concept comedy, inspired by and drawing on Goldberg's TV work, “Must Love Dog” is a shallow, mildly entertaining sitcom, with a large ensemble of gifted players (including Christopher Plummer and Elizabeth Perkins)whore wasted.

The movie is so diffuse and rambling that it could easily function as a pilot for a new TV sitcom. The only people who might like this small (in every sense of the word) romantic comedy, that doesn't feel or look like studio fare, are the entrepreneurs behind the Internet dating services, such as PerfectMatch.com, since the computer occupies the screen as much as the human characters.

At the center, there's a modern woman's quest for romance and a soul mate in a world where both are in short supply. According to this film, today's version of the eternal dating game is a blur of websites, speed lunches, and hordes of relatives who know the “right” person for you. Dating, the time-honored search for a soul mate, is depicted here as part humiliation, part aggravation, and part fabrication in the way that eligible candidates presents themselves to the world.

Thirtysomething preschool teacher Sarah Nolan (Lane) has been divorced for eight months, which is much too long for her family to bear, though it's never clear what's so bad about being a single for that short of time. With “best intentions,” they stage an intervention in an all-out effort to get her back into the dating scene. Leading the charge are Sarah's sisters, Carol (Perkins) and Christine (Ali Hillis), whore eager to line up potential suitors. Says take-charge Carol: “Mate shopping is kinda like going online to buy a pair of pants, except there's going to be a guy in them.”

Not far behind is their widowed father Bill (Plummer), who sets a fine example with his own recent successful foray into the Internet dating realm. Bill is seeing the free-spirited Dolly (Channing), whom he met online, along with other ladies whose names his daughters can't quite keep track of.

When the story opens, we find the entire clan, siblings, sisters-and-brothers-in law and family patriarch Bill, convened in Sarah's kitchen for an intervention, armed with names of every available guy they can think of, plus photos of some magazine models for inspiration.

Not content with their advisory status on Sarah's love life, and anxious to launch their sister's own cyber-dating debut, Carol and Christine pretend to be Sarah and post her profile on PerfectMatch.com. The message is enticing message, “Voluptuous, sensuous, alluring and fun. DWF seeks special man to share starlit nights. Must love dogs.” The provocative profile is accompanied with Sarah's high school graduation photo, complete with cap and gown. They claim it was the only photo they could find that didn't include her cute ex-husband.

Sarah soon endures a series of disastrous mismatches and first dates as the website offers up a stream of desperate wannabes. Her odyssey of first date includes the arm wrestler, the handcuff expert, the one who brought his 14-year-old daughter along, the uncontrollable weeper, the jerk who opened their conversation by bluntly remarking, “I thought youd be younger.”

One definite standout in this eclectic parade is individualist Jake Anderson. Recently divorced, Jake is going through his own angst and uncertainty in self-imposed exile and with more than a measure of sardonic humor. Most nights find him alone, working on the specialty wooden racing boats he designs, or wallowing in countless screenings of his favorite tribute to doomed romance, Dr. Zhivago. Though he has watched the film numerous times, he still gets emotionally aroused by the sight of Julie Christie and Omar Shariff and, of course, that schmaltzy score. (The choice of Lean's 1965 romantic epos as a cultural signpost is strange, considering the age of the protagonists, all of whom were born after the picture had been made).

Like Sarah, Jake is reluctantly pushed back on the market, not by his family but by best friend Charlie (Ben Shenkman), who has had enough of the Russian winter landscape and mopey Jake. When Jake refuses to see any of the bimbos on Charlie's speed-dial, Charlie tries another tack. Without his friend's knowledge, he clicks onto Sarah's Perfect Match profile and arranges a date for her with Jake at a local dog park, an event for which they must both borrow dogs or risk appearing disingenuous. Jake shows up nervously with a neighbor's feisty terrier and Sarah brings her brother's imposing Newfoundland, Mother Teresa.

As throwback guy, Jake is looking for authenticity in the most unauthentic setting
A little on the intense side, he might be looking for more than Sarah wants right now. Literate, emotional, and straightforward, Jake dislikes small talk. He's a man who wants to know upfront who you really are, what youre passionate about and what your thoughts might be.

The other “potential maybe” Sarah meets the old-fashioned way, in person, at the preschool where she works, is Bob Connor (Mulroney), the handsome, easygoing single father of one of her students. Charming and relaxed, Bob seems made to order, the perfect guy for Sarah. Sarah and Bob have been shyly flirting over the Crayolas and the Curious George collection for weeks, every time the doting dad comes to collect his son, although Sarah is hesitant to compromise her job by getting involved with a parent.

Based on Claire Cook's best-selling book, “Must Love Dogs” follows the semi-comic, mosly bumpy journey of a woman who rediscovers romance and learns to trust her instincts again. Cook's novel captures a moment in time, that surreal, post-divorce pause in which people are in shock–and retreat, when their self- confidence is shaken and they tend to make bad choices.

Though meant to explore one woman's search for love in an increasingly frantic world, the movie is so lifeless and slow that the frantic element of the equation never comes across. The humor is sporadic and fleeting, and the funny lines surrounded by many more dull moments in a movie that get increasingly conventional and bland.

Sarah is a woman whose life didn't turn out exactly as she expected. She was willing to remain in a marriage even though there weren't any fireworks; surprisingly, it's her husband who bailed out. Now in transition, she has to summon up the courage to get out there and try again, and the world is not as hospitable or forgiving. Though bruised and somewhat disillusioned, Sarah is ultimately optimistic. Indeed, the best thing about Sarah is that she's still open-minded, still willing to try again.

The film's nicest aspect is its warm, positive portrait of Sarah's large family. For all of Sarah's difficulties, she is not alone; her loving family would never allow that. It's a tightly-knit, big Irish family, where everyone feels they know what's best for you and they let you know exactly what that is.

The traditional ways of meeting people have broken down, and there is no interpersonal community anymore. Any story depicting the current dating world would have to involve the Internet, which is becoming quite pervasive. Goldberg expanded upon that element for the screen version of Cook's novel, in which Sarah relied upon newspapers for her personal ad interaction.

In Internet dating, you can narrow your choices as to age, height, interests, religious preferences–anything. But the potential for artifice and fraud is high in the cyber realm. Be it via newspaper, high-speed computer or a friendly set-up through your aunt's neighbors, the rules, rewards and potential pitfalls for those dating are the same today as they were in the past. Vigilance counts, as does luck and a sense of humor.

Must Love Dogs takes this concept to an extreme in a scene in which Sarah answers an ad posted by a man presenting himself as “a young 50,” only to find, when she arrives at the appointed caf, that she has responded to the ad of her 71-year-old father. Whereupon, Dad proclaims his innocence, insisting that, “In the bottom of my soul Im only 50, the rest is poetry.”

Similarly, when Sarah questions Carol's choice of adjectives on her Perfect Match profile, specifically “voluptuous” and “sensuous,” never mind the fact that she doesn't even have a dog, her sister's response is that the truth doesn't apply in advertising laws. The point of a personal ad is to generate dates; the details can be worked out later. It's a pro-active sentiment echoed by Dolly, one of Bill's Internet girlfriends, who maintains a dozen different dating profiles in which she tries out various personas. On one, she's dressed up like a rodeo girl, fringe jacket and a cowboy hat, and on another, she's all champagne and caviar. Her philosophy is increase your visibility and your odds. Besides, how do you know you don't like skydiving, rodeos or opera if youve never tried it”

Lane rendered a searing portrayal of a wayward wife in “Unfaithful,” that earned her an Oscar nomination, and she also graced the 2003 romantic comedy, “Under the Tuscan Sun.” In this picture, her timing is sharp, which gives poignancy to the underlying self-deprecation in her remarks. But Lane is too bright to play a woman for whom wearing her hair up or down is still a major decision for the evening.

When a 90-minute-movie relies on half a dozen montages, you know that the tale is too slim for a feature and that the storytelling is in trouble. The writing is not bad–there are some witty and biting one-liners. A competent director, which Goldberg is not, might have given it a stylish look that would have elevated the movie above its pedestrian text—and make it more enjoyable.

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