HERE'S A LIST of the individuals who will absolutely adore "Must Love Dogs":
* People who don't get out much.
* Pet owners who say "Awww" every time they see a commercial for Purina Puppy Chow.
* Thirty-something women so obsessed with John Cusack they even loved "Money for Nothing."
* The entire marketing department at Perfectmatch.com.
As for the rest of the movie-going public, "Must Love Dogs" -- a listless, cliche-ridden tale of two divorcees who meet through an online dating service -- stands as yet another example of how easy it is for filmmakers to fail at romantic comedy.
The usually radiant Diane Lane loses a little of her luster in her role as Sarah Nolan, a recently divorced preschool teacher from a large Irish family, each member of which is more than willing to suggest prospective men for her to date. Apparently, even though Sarah is beautiful, works a fulfilling job, has great friends, loving relatives and a stunning home, her life is on the verge of disaster because she's single. Consequently, her sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) creates a profile for Sarah on -- you guessed it -- Perfectmatch.com. "Must Love Dogs" may not succeed as a movie, but as a product placement for a Web site, it gets two thumbs way up.
Sarah's venture into online romance leads to a torrential downpour of mostly disastrous first dates and, eventually, an encounter at a dog park with Jake (Cusack), a boat builder (yes, I said boat builder) who also is attempting to recover from a divorce. He's quirky and cute and can make his best friend's West Highland terrier roll over and play dead. (That's your cue, Purina Puppy Chow people: Awww.) Naturally, Sarah is interested, but she's also intrigued by Bob (Dermot Mulroney), the flirtatious father of one of her students who also has recently become single.
That's about as deep as the conflicts get in "Must Love Dogs," which was adapted from the novel by Claire Cook and written and directed by Gary David Goldberg, best known for creating TV's "Family Ties" and "Spin City." Perhaps Goldberg's sitcom pedigree is part of the problem: Most of the movie consists of disjointed scenes that end with cutesy punch lines but never connect as part of an affecting narrative. Like most modern romantic comedies -- perhaps Hollywood's most consistently mishandled genre -- "Must Love Dogs" is so busy copying from better films that it forgets to present anything approximating real life. And the best romantic comedies are always about life as much as love.
Even though they're portrayed by talented actors -- in addition to Lane, Cusack and Mulroney, Christopher Plummer and Stockard Channing are part of the cast -- none of these characters seems like a real, flesh-and-blood person. They're more like dolls, forced to do and say the things Goldberg wants to pretend real people say and do when they're grappling with relationships. Like every single woman in every crummy chick flick ever made, Lane bathes in a tub surrounded by scented candles, weeps in the shower when she's depressed and eats chicken over the kitchen sink while Sheryl Crow's version of "The First Cut Is the Deepest" plays on the soundtrack. And Cusack, who looks like he just wants to get the heck out of this movie as soon as he can, drowns his sorrows while watching "Doctor Zhivago" so the audience will know he's a sensitive male. But he also wears a Ramones T-shirt. Because, you know, that means he's punk and edgy.
The most depressing thing of all, actually, is watching Cusack, who may be the Crown Prince of Gen X Romantic Comedies, in such a trite and lackluster affair. Lloyd Dobler, the character Cusack played in the endearing and enduring "Say Anything," would have no patience for a movie like this. Lloyd was always looking for a dare-to-be-great situation. And this is nothing but a dare-to-be-terrible movie.
MUST LOVE DOGS (PG-13, 88 minutes) -- Contains sexual content. Area theaters.