- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

Oy. Is it ever an urban jungle out there. If you’re married or otherwise permanently settled, be glad. If you’re not, you have “Must Love Dogs” for commiseration.

This utterly charming, if excessively articulate, romantic comedy, starring Diane Lane and John Cusack as fortysomething marriage losers rescued by fate (or beach-side book writers) in Greater Los Angeles, makes single life out to be a perpetually unpleasant, often embarrassing, at times excruciating period of indeterminate waiting.

Miss Lane is Sarah, a recently divorced preschool teacher. When she is cajoled by her family — a gang of busybody Irish Catholics — into giving online matchmaking a try, she is thrown into the company of blubbering wimps, trophy seekers, self-absorbed creeps and other assorted deviants on the desperate dating circuit. At first, she is shy, skeptical yet curious, cautiously hopeful; later, she takes a perverse pleasure in her mismatches, using first dates as an excuse for screwball role-playing.

Mr. Cusack’s Jake, a fine wooden boat builder, also recently divorced, appears not to have family nearby in his time of need; instead, he watches “Doctor Zhivago,” broods incessantly, and complains in high philosophical tones to his smarmy, skirt-chasing lawyer friend Michael (Glenn Howerton) about the death of true romance in the modern world.

Miss Lane, 40, is, of course, too dazzling in the looks department to pass the “I can’t find a good man” laugh test. Still, she seems relatable enough, even when shopping for groceries.

And her story — that of the jerk husband who simply quit loving her and traded up (down?) for a younger filly — sounded convincing. As played by Mr. Cusack, who force-fits intelligence and integrity into his characters even when they don’t deserve it (see genre efforts “Con Air” and “Runaway Jury” for proof), Jake is a catch, too.

The two meet in a dog park, although neither is particularly a dog-lover. (The title, adapted from novelist Claire Cook, is classified-adspeak.) Sarah’s sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins, in her best role since “Big”) comes up with the trait while composing Sarah’s Internet profile. Michael answers the ad on Jake’s behalf, forcing his friend’s hand.

The chemistry between Sarah and Jake is real-life chemistry, in that it’s not an immediate success. Sarah is gun-shy, and has her eyes peeled for the hunky father (Dermot Mulroney) of one her students. Jake too intensely wears his heart on his sleeve. The one thing that continually unbalances their romantic chemical equation is an overabundance of language.

Possibly, writer-director Gary David Goldberg, who has worked mostly in television, got too excited about the chance to make a grown-up entertainment. Whatever the case, there’s too much fluff here. The occasional eloquence is fine, maybe essential, but Mr. Goldberg never lets his characters search for the right words; they flow out like white water. (“He’s looking for the whole dance, and I’m just re-learning the steps,” says Sarah, who, according to Jake, has a wonderful “constellation of attributes.”) Christopher Plummer, who plays Sarah’s widower dad, actually recites Yeats at one point.

The prolix Mr. Goldberg does well with subplots, though, working in romantic mini-dramas involving Mr. Plummer’s Bill and a girlfriend (the great Stockard Channing) and, even more tangentially, the not-so-swell marriages of Sarah’s siblings.

Amazingly in this age of overlong movies, Mr. Goldberg wraps all this up in a tidy 90 minutes, at the end of which not everyone lives happily ever after. “Must Love Dogs” is that rare thing: a romantic comedy that’s mature and bittersweet.

***

TITLE: “Must Love Dogs”

RATING: PG-13 (Sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Gary David Goldberg. Produced by Mr. Goldberg, Jennifer Todd and Suzanne Todd. Written by Mr. Goldberg, based on Claire Cook’s novel. Cinematography by John Bailey. Original music by Craig Armstrong.

RUNNING TIME: approx. 90 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.mustlovedogsmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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