'Must Love Dogs': One Tail-Wagger of a Romance

The warp and woof of life: As a middle-aged divorcee, Diane Lane turns a typical romantic comedy into something more.
The warp and woof of life: As a middle-aged divorcee, Diane Lane turns a typical romantic comedy into something more. (By Claudette Barius -- Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 29, 2005

"Must Love Dogs," this summer's first bona fide romantic comedy, stars Diane Lane in a role that is threatening to become her own casting ghetto, that of the recent divorcee looking for love with the help of her gay best friends. That was the story line in "Under the Tuscan Sun," Lane's last movie; here, Italy has been supplanted by the far less visually compelling Southern California, and the gay best friends have been moved to the background in favor of a warmly meddling Irish Catholic family. But the basic rules still apply and, despite the movie's patently outlandish contrivances and too-precious dialogue, it works.

It works because Lane is one of those actresses who can do just about anything and still earn the audience's undying love. Is it that adorable furrowed brow? That nervous smile? The way she, unlike nearly every other actress working today, actually once in a while looks as if she might need a little sleep? Whatever it is, Lane possesses that ineffable quality that makes her not only sensational but appealing, not only drop-dead gorgeous but unthreatening. To paraphrase what they said about James Bond, men want her, women want to be her. Or, more precisely, men think that she isn't completely out of their league and women don't look at her and immediately want to give up.

And, in case we've forgotten since her Oscar-nominated turn in "Unfaithful," Lane can act, which in "Must Love Dogs" means she can make even the most canned, ersatz, predictable material ring true. Luckily, her opposite number, John Cusack, brings the same warmth and appeal to the enterprise, making what might have been a strictly by-the-numbers chick flick into an improbably smart and genial little mental getaway. What's more, these two generate real, slow-burning rapport, so that you're still pulling for them even during a gratingly preposterous climax.

Based on the novel by Claire Cook, "Must Love Dogs" features Lane as Sarah, a 40-year-old preschool teacher who's been dumped by her rotter of a husband and who, as the movie opens, is the subject of a dating intervention by her sprawling family. Let it be said that Sarah, in fact, does not own a dog; that's just a flourish her older sister (Elizabeth Perkins) includes when she takes it upon herself to place an ad for Sarah on an Internet dating service.

Meanwhile, across town, boat-builder Jake (Cusack), also recently divorced, is the subject of similar lobbying from his best friend. Jake and Sarah meet cute at a local dog park, the conversation is something of a disaster, and the rest of "Must Love Dogs" concerns itself with how these two perfect-for-each-other singletons will cut their way through the chaff to find each other again.

"Must Love Dogs" has been adapted and directed by Gary David Goldberg, best known for creating such television hits as "Family Ties" and "Spin City," and it has the visual glow and glib repartee of a particularly high-end sitcom; it's the kind of middlebrow, popcorn-friendly rom-com that we used to depend on Nora Ephron to make.

You won't necessarily believe a word of a movie that features a male lead who builds wooden boats in his brick-and-timber loft, is a fan of both "Doctor Zhivago" and the Ramones and has no discernible means of support, but Goldberg and his two leads clearly understand love of a certain age. Like "As Good as It Gets" and the uneven "Something's Gotta Give," "Must Love Dogs" takes an often mordant look at middle-aged romance and finds a rich vein of humor. (A sequence during which Jake and Sarah try to consummate their attraction is hilariously on-point.)

What's more, "Must Love Dogs" features an enormously appealing supporting cast, including Christopher Plummer as Sarah's single dad (who features in one of the movie's funniest gags), Stockard Channing as a blowzy, trailer-dwelling divorcee with a heart of gold, and a little-known actress named Jordana Spiro, who steals every scene she's in as a giggly, round-heeled ditz.

Reportedly, Cusack asked Goldberg to rewrite his dialogue to make it more in keeping with his own brainy, rapid-fire cadences, and if that's true, it was a good idea. His scenes with Lane crackle with all the giddy hopes and anxieties of a man newly smitten, and an early monologue he delivers, in which Jake expounds on his narrative theory of romantic relationships, actually makes much more sense than the usual "You complete me" blather.

Likewise Lane, who undergoes dozens of makeovers in the course of several funny first -- and last -- dates with her Internet correspondents, is always rooted and radiant, even at her most depressed (is there anyone else alive who makes haggard look this good?). If the audience roots for Jake and Sarah, it's not because they're particularly well-written characters but because the actors so skillfully manage to make their authentic selves visible beneath the veneer.

In "Must Love Dogs," that veneer is usually either prissily manicured or self-consciously goofy; this is a movie, after all, that features references to Yeats and "The Partridge Family." It's all as sunny and super-cute as Sarah's perfect little house, and the film's Big Scene, which is supposedly propelled by the desperation of the main character, seems more motivated by the desperation of the director. But despite such occasional stretches, and thanks to its splendid lead players, "Must Love Dogs" has the affable, cuddly charm that its title so hopefully invokes.

Must Love Dogs (98 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company