Must Love Dogs

| July 31, 2005

The opening sequence of Must Love Dogs is a Harry Met Sally-like group of interviews of singles, asking the question “Where do you meet people?” The singles rattle off good places and bad, the funniest being “I go to a home improvement store, walk up to a guy and say ‘Hey, do you know where I can get nailed, I mean ‘” The single woman continues. “Then I say ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been drinking all afternoon!’” She finishes “Then they know you’re easy, and you like to drink!” Silly yes, but so is dating, and Must Love Dogs is an almost too gentle poke at the mating dance, and the rules that go along with it.
Sarah, Diane Lane, is a recently divorced pre-school teacher whose family and friends can’t stand to see her alone. In an opening scene they surround her suggesting one single after another, not necessarily thinking about what is appropriate as much as what would just plain get her “out there” again. Her meddling sister Carol, Elizabeth Perkins, takes the liberty of putting Sarah’s profile up on a single’s website, using her high school graduation photo as the image. An unsolicited bit of helpfulness, but Sarah gamely agrees to meet some of the men who have responded to her ad.
A series of dates occur, one man less satisfactory than the next, including a man who says “When I said my preferred age range was 25-45, I was hoping for 25, or 23, or 18. It’s legal!” Sarah also ends up singing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hand with a terminally blue crier, and again, the audience cannot help but to salute the sport that our heroine is. The only bite she gets is one that doesn’t come from the internet. The father of one of her students who had shared in a very funny sequence that his father was “Incorrigible. That means he likes other women” during sharing time. Bobby, Dermot Mulroney, is a rakish and charming fellow who sees his son’s teacher for more than her nurturing characteristics. Sarah is interested in him too, and sparks begin to fly.
At the same time, Sarah meets one of the men who answered her ad, or more precisely has a friend who answered her ad for him. They set a date for the dog park, as Sarah’s ad was tagged with “Must love dogs.” It turns out that they both have to borrow dogs for the date, and it is actually a pretty uncomfortable meeting. Her date Jake (John Cusack) is more blunt than most, and the natural uneasiness of a blind date is magnified because of it. Despite their awkward beginning they agree to meet again, this time at an Armenian restaurant. Here Jake’s pointed nature reveals itself again, this time when he encourages Sarah to eschew the small talk, for what is small talk good for at the beginning of a relationship? Get the big things out on the table and out of the way. The dinner goes famously, so well the evening ends with a condom search that alas continues too long, and ruins the moment.
Jake, not unlike Sarah, is also raw from a recent divorce. His caddish best friend, played amusingly one-notedly by Ben Shenkman, offers shallow come-back sex referrals repeatedly, but Jake is a romantic. He builds boats (impossible to race wooden sculls) by hand and watches Dr. Zhivago more times than one can count. He’s in it for the lightning bolt.
This is a romantic comedy, so the obvious hook-up fails, and the more difficult one triumphs. There are a lot of moments in Must Love Dogs that hit home to anyone, whether single or not. The execution, however, leaves one unsatisfied.
Sarah’s father, played handsomely by Christopher Plummer, is an engaging patriarch, and a widower himself. His secondary story line is almost more interesting, as he states “It’s different for me, I’ve already had the love of my life.” His funny would-be partner Dolly (Stockard Channing) is perhaps the most engaging character in the film. Her hopeful persistence is a beacon to singles everywhere, and her patience pays off in the end. The viewer wishes they were rooting for the main characters just as hard.
The writing in Must Love Dogs is smooth and witty. Lane delivers clever quips beautifully, and Cusack meets his challenge as the unusual, principled love interest without missing a beat. There is just something about the set up that makes the one-liners recognizable as just that. The bad times aren’t bad enough, and the resolution isn’t earned. It’s hard to feel too much for the central couple even though it is clear that they are the Romeo and Juliet of this tale. Even a light summer film deserves a little trauma for the happy ending, and it just isn’t there in “Dogs.” That said, there are some really funny moments in this film. When children at a daycare start sharing way too much about their parents’ private lives, when Sarah ends up answering her own father’s personal ad, when 60-something Dolly’s 15 year-old internet pal shows up on her doorstep. All this makes for really charming moments, but lacks the cohesiveness that the film demands.
As summer fare must Love Dogs is acceptable, but a bit disappointing. The elements for a superior movie are all there. The casting is good, and it is no end of pleasing to see a cast of full adults interacting in a funny, sexy fashion. Unfortunately this capable cast was not challenged enough by the material, or by director Gary David Goldberg, to make this one of the few mature tales of love and longing. As the film ends couples from the film describe how they met, and honestly, the best sequence is a pair of Newfoundlands. That isn’t right.

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