Must Love Dogs

Ealasaid/ August 1, 2005/ Movie Reviews and Features

Directed by: Gary David Goldberg
Starring: John Cusack, Diane Lane, Christopher Plummer, Stockard Channing
Rated: PG-13 for sexual content.
Parental Notes: This is a fairly standard romantic comedy. There’s some bawdy material but nothing graphic. Really, the most damage it might do to your children is give them unrealistic expectations in life.

John Cusack is a staple of romantic comedies. Starting with “Say Anything” and running through “Grosse Point Blank,” “High Fidelity,” and “America’s Sweethearts” he’s made a significant chunk of his career out of playing men who are utterly perfect except for their odd little neuroses (lack of ambition, mild psychosis, obsessive record collecting, etc). If you like the kinds of romantic comedy John Cusack tends to be in, you will almost certainly enjoy “Must Love Dogs,” which has the added bonus of being about a pair of middle-aged lovers who are actually played by middle-aged actors.
The story is standard: girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy-due-to-misunderstanding, girl-wins-boy-back. Sarah (Diane Lane) is a recently divorced preschool teacher having trouble getting back on the dating wagon. Her huge family, led by her widower father Bill (Christopher Plummer), tries to get her to go out a bit and one of her sisters puts up a personal ad for her on a website. Sarah gamely goes along with it and goes through a series of dates familiar to anybody who’s had any interaction with the online dating scene.
Meanwhile, Jake (John Cusack) is trying to get over being dumped by his wife. He makes racing boats by hand but nobody wants to buy them to race because they’re wooden rather than fiberglass (“they don’t win,” he says, “but they lose beautifully”). Jake refuses to sell a boat to a man who wants to cut it up and hang it on his wall as decoration because he values his creations more than the money he could get for them. He gives internet dating a shot, and when he and Sarah meet sparks fly even though they get off on the wrong foot in classic manner. Their second date goes a lot better, but things can’t go too smoothly or there wouldn’t be much of a movie; conflict presents itself in the form of Bob (Dermot Mulrooney), the rakishly sexy dad of one of Sarah’s students.
Sure, it’s formulaic, but that’s kind of the point. We don’t go see romantic comedies to be surprised by the twists and turns of the plot. They are the movie equivalent of ice cream: sweet, enjoyable, a known quantity, and something of a guilty pleasure. This isn’t suspenseful or surprising, it’s a charming reinvention of the same story that comes out a dozen (or more!) times a year in slightly different guises.
Where romantic comedies live or die is in their characters. If they’re not sufficiently interesting, the film is dead in the water. Fortunately, “Must Love Dogs” has charming characters who are actually middle-aged or older. Bill strings along several senior citizen dates, including the free-spirited Dolly (Stockard Channing) who handles his caddishness with fantastic wisdom. So what if we’ve seen these “quirky but lovable” folks a hundred times? The characters are fun, the dialog is sweet, and it’s refreshing to see forty-year-old actors playing forty-year-old characters, not to mention a pair of over-sixty actors playing a romantic couple.
The only significant flaw in “Must Love Dogs” is that the film degenerates into pure clich

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