I'm a sucker for romantic comedies. You know the ones I'm talking about...they're almost always light, fluffy, cliche' ridden fare with standard issue characters, predictable storylines and happy endings. If you enjoyed John Cusack's "Serendipity," then you will enjoy "Must Love Dogs." The storyline is somewhat different, the cast (except for Cusack, of course) is different, but the end result is the same...angst ridden Cusack's character fails in love, gets hurt, learns lessons and ends up happy. The end.
Yet, I can't help myself. I enjoy this side of Cusack tremendously. In films like "Serendipity," "Say Anything" and other light comedies there's an optimism and a hopefulness that is so often missing in films these days.
"Must Love Dogs" centers around Sarah, a 40-something preschool teacher played by Diane Lane, who suddenly finds herself divorced and dealing with friends and family who want to fix her up. Her sister, wonderfully played by Elizabeth McGovern (Where's she been, anyway?) posts an ad for Sarah on perfectmatch.com and Sarah begins meeting numerous Mr. Wrongs. In the meantime, Jake finds himself divorced and pretty much giving his wife of four years everything...darker, more cynical yet brutally honest, Jake (Cusack) approaches life from the "nothing to lose because we're all going to lose anyway" angle.
Eventually, the two meet, awkwardly date and, well, you pretty much know the storyline from here on out. There are a few authentic choices made along the way. Sarah also finds herself intrigued by Bob (Dermot Mulroney), the "incorrigible" father of one of her students...who says all the right things and makes all the right moves but ultimately seems too smooth. Caught in a moderately compromising position with Bob by Jake, Jake and Sarah part...make their bad choices then meet again unexpectedly one night (Could it be serendipity?).
Is there an actress working who plays the emotionally devastated older woman better than Diane Lane? Nope, there's not. Lane takes an incredibly cliche' character and brings her to life. Scenes with her family are marvelous...scenes with the children exude caring and innocence...scenes while dating exhibit playfulness and sensuality...and the scene of vulnerability involving Bob is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Likewise, Cusack has mastered the role of the screwed up guy trying desperately to make things right. Cusack has this uncanny ability to play "hurt" but "you can't destroy me" better than any actor out there. Yes, he's done it time and again...but, he does it so marvelously that I can forgive it.
This could be the best supporting cast among Cusack's romantic comedies, including the aforementioned Mulroney, Christopher Plummer (as Sarah's father...himself a widower who starts rather shallowly playing the field), Elizabeth McGovern, Stockard Channing (in a throwaway role that she makes come to life) and the rest of Sarah's siblings and Jordana Spiro as the hilariously dim but stacked Sherry.
The film is directed by Gary David Goldberg. Goldberg is best known as the creator of TV's "Family Ties" and "Spin City," but has directed numerous sitcoms. His last film direction was 1989's "Dad" with Jack Lemmon, and he brings many of the qualities from that film into this one. Goldberg also wrote the screenplay based upon a Claire Cook novel.
With any film such as this, a certain amount of suspension is required. If you are looking for a brilliant film, then you will be disappointed. If you are looking for an intelligent script, you won't find it here. Indeed, if you need to be razzled and dazzled, then you have lots of other options.
Yet, unlike any film thus far this year "Must Love Dogs" is a fantastic date flick. The film is romantic, sweet, gentle and funny. The audience watching this sneak preview enjoyed it tremendously, laughed often and praised the film openly at the end. The film also includes a gentle, yet sweet portrayal of a gay couple that, while a tad stereotypical, also avoided campiness and treated them with respect as a relationship. Additionally, the film includes some remarkably cute child and animal performances. The dogs, in particular, are quite well trained and were laugh out loud funny in spots.
The film is hindered by a a few distracting factors...first, the cinematography of John Bailey (who also filmed this year's underrated "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") included a few too many close-up face shots for my liking...I began to wonder if I were watching "Mr. Potatohead" instead of a romantic comedy. Secondly, editing was a tad off at times. Sometimes, rather than allow a scene to do a slow fade out it seems the choice was made for an abrupt cut. I liken it to sitcom directing, where time management and advertising dollars dictate such scenes. Here, however, it was distracting and cut off the mood that the film had created.
Finally, the script itself is fairly disappointing even beyond the cliches. While the cast did a marvelous job with it, the overall theme of the film is convoluted. Dad's behavior became a distraction without resolution, as did the open doors of a siblings marital problems, Jake's selling of a boat and other small unresolved issues. In some ways, it felt like so much was introduced that it was impossible to tie up all the loose ends by the end of the film.
The end result is a film experience that is as convoluted as the script itself. Undeniably flawed, "Must Love Dogs" is still remarkably enjoyable and the right film at the right time as there's simply nothing like it currently in theaters. Blessed with a talented cast led by Cusack and Lane, "Must Love Dogs" is the perfect film for you to snuggle up with the one you love. Will "Must Love Dogs" change your life? No, but it will make you smile.
CRITIC'S NOTE: I recommend staying through the credits as the film ends much as it begins. This touch is sweet, funny and a nice way to end the film.