Watching Must Love Dogs, an Internet dating comedy so weightless that it makes a trifle like You've Got Mail look like Chekhov, you have to wonder how actors of the caliber of Diane Lane, John Cusack, Christopher Plummer and Stockard Channing were bamboozled into lending their talents to the project.
One reason might be that its writer-
director, Gary David Goldberg, who adapted the movie from a popular novel by Claire Cook, has a reasonable track record in television sitcoms (Family Ties). How bad could it be?
But aren't actors supposed to read the screenplays sent to them before they commit to a movie? Proving once again that skillful performances can't create something out of almost nothing -- the best they can do is make it palatable -- Must Love Dogs plays like a dated pre-Seinfeld television comedy carelessly splashed onto the screen. Even with its family values and its dogs and children trotting around, its connections to the real world feel tenuous. And its titillated oohing and ahhing attitude toward computer dating puts it several steps behind the social and technological curve.
As Sarah Nolan, a recently divorced preschool teacher pushing 40, Lane sinks deeper into the stereotypical rut of a smart, beautiful thoroughbred in desperate need of a Mr. Right to complete her life. Lane played virtually the same role in the slightly more substantial, sexier and less overtly frothy romantic fantasy Under the Tuscan Sun. The time has come for her to pull herself out of the dirt and run as fast as she can to higher ground, where there's some green grass.
Must Love Dogs demonstrates that Lane is not cut out for light romantic comedy. Even when playing sunny, waves of darkness and tension ripple below the surface. Lane's body language and the speed and intensity with which her face continually changes expression betray the impatience and wariness of an intelligent high-strung animal straining at a leash. At her most brilliant, in Unfaithful, her volcanic passion held under pressure was allowed to erupt.
In Must Love Dogs, Sarah, pushed and prodded by her sisters, Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) and Christine (Ali Hillis), allows them to post an Internet ad that reads "voluptuous, sensuous, alluring and fun" with the condition "must love dogs" be attached. One of the many who respond is Jake Anderson (Cusack), a wisecracking builder of handmade wooden canoes whom she meets at a dog park.
The vehemence with which Jake sneers at fiberglass attests to his true-blue niceness and decency -- his insistence on wood makes him a whole-earth kind of guy. He is sensitive too. Emotionally devastated by a recent divorce, he likes to sit around and get teary-eyed watching Dr. Zhivago.
Goldberg's screenplay gives all its wittiest lines to Cusack, who makes the most of them, although the jokes aren't funny enough to bring the movie fully awake. And Lane and Cusack have such an acute lack of romantic chemistry that the sight of them pretending to make nice to each other leaves you squirming with discomfort.
Must Love Dogs gives Jake a rival in the person of Bob Connor (Dermot Mulroney), the recently separated father of one of Sarah's preschoolers. The screenplay tries vainly to make the fact of this handsome cipher's being the father of one of Sarah's students a romantic obstacle.
The movie has shoehorned several contrived little incidents into its story to keep the plot in motion. Most involve Plummer, who plays Sarah's 71-year-old widowed father, Bill, and Channing as Dolly, one of his blowsy girlfriends. Bill and Dolly have also taken up Internet dating and the deception that often goes with it. Bill claims to be in his early 50s and Dolly (who is well over 50) in her early 40s.
Must Love Dogs is so clueless that it imagines that Dolly's landing of a 15-year-old suitor and Sarah's assignation with a man who turns out to be her father are fresh comic ideas. That's how hopelessly cliche and out of date this vapid little movie that thinks it's so cute turns out to be.
Must Love Dogs
Directed by: Gary David Goldberg
Starring: Diane Lane (Sarah Nolan), John Cusack (Jake Anderson), Dermot Mulroney (Bob Connor), Elizabeth Perkins (Carol), Stockard Channing (Dolly) and Christopher Plummer (Bill).
Running time: 92 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
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