Sarah: Diane Lane
Jake: John Cusack
Carol: Elizabeth Perkins
Bill: Christopher Plummer
Bob: Dermot Mulroney
Dolly: Stockard Channing
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by Gary David Goldberg. Based on the novel by Claire Cook. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content).
I realize it has been a long time since I was in the dating game, and I certainly thank the heavens that I don’t have to put myself through that type of heart-wrenching torture any longer (and with continuing good fortune, hopefully never again). But as I recall it, the search for “true love” was never fraught with all coincidences and misunderstandings of Hollywood’s ruminations on the dating game. In reality rejection was quick and only briefly painful, not the Hollywood life altering version; and hope rarely dangled, except in my imagination, with a series of near misses with the one for which I was destined.
Must Love Dogs is yet another in the growing canon of Hollywood love stories about two people who should no doubt be together in the audience’s eyes and yet can’t seem to figure it out themselves until at least an hour and a half have passed away from the audience’s lives. The film relies heavily on the strength of its stars charms, with Diane Lane (Unfaithful) and John Cusack (High Fidelity) playing the two recently divorced destined lovers and Dermot Mulroney (About Schmidt) even showing up also as a recent divorcee and second potential love interest for Lane. Boy, that is a lot of broken marriages to center a love story around. The movie is bogged down by its own weight, spending too much time trying to show how tough the relationship game is and not enough time on its rewards. In other words, this chick flick is depressing when it should be fun.
Lane plays Sarah, who, it is quickly established in the first scene with her overbearing family, has had trouble getting over her split with her husband. Her family holds a sad divorcee “intervention” by cornering her in her surprisingly high end home for a pre-school teacher, the lawyers must have treated her well anyway. They each bring pictures of potential love interests to pin up on her refrigerator; many of these potentials are already married, so I guess her family doesn’t quite get the concept of fidelity, which might explain why there are so many of them. Sarah’s ever meddling sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins, The Ring Two) submits her profile to a dating website with the requirement “Must Love Dogs”, even though Sarah doesn’t actually own a dog; but she does look after her brother’s Newfoundland quite frequently because he’s experiencing marriage problems of his own. It’s an epidemic!
Jack (Cusack) is also suffering after the failure of his marriage. Apparently, he’s a hopeless romantic who has watched Doctor Zhivago more than any sensible person should, and yet somehow lost his wife due to his obsessive career as a wooden racing boat sculptor, of which he has never sold any. Don’t ask me how he is able to even buy enough food to eat. His existence can only be explained by the Hollywood mystery forces that require leads in romantic comedies to hold unique and unusual careers that magically allow them to live at the upper end of middle income America.
Jack is also a bit of a modern philosopher, something that Cusack manages to pull off as a charming characteristic even though the screenplay by director Gary David Goldberg gives his character the almost insurmountable obstacle of destroying every date he has with Sarah by talking too much and being too brutally honest. Goldberg, a veteran of TV who was largely responsible for the success of such sitcoms as Family Ties and Spin City, must have had some great tragedies in his own love life to take out all of this bitterness and emotional angst toward relationships on these two characters who really should be having a hell of a lot more fun together than they are.
One of the successes of the picture is the relationship between Sarah and her sister Carol. Perkins and Lane, who are rumored to be best friends in life, build a believable sibling rapport with two parts competition and one part love. Perkins seems to be allowing her character to live vicariously through Lane’s, although Goldberg miraculously has not inflicted marital problems on Carol as well. Carol does seem to show up at Sarah’s house at very unusual hours of the day for a woman with a family of her own -- a convenience of the plot that my own wife actually pointed out to me.
Goldberg does hit some other correct notes. Mulroney is perfectly cast, bringing the proper amount of charm to his divorcee competing for Sarah’s affection, yet keeping a little of the smarm in his back pocket so the audience will root for the right guy. And Sarah’s poet quoting father (Christopher Plummer, Alexander) gives one of the better explanations of old age philandering I’ve heard, although the fact that he brings three dates to family functions is not dealt with directly or humorously enough. But Goldberg plots far too many romantic comedy conventions. The lovers catch each other in about three too many misunderstood compromised positions. And it doesn’t have enough romantic comedy laughs. It could be he was trying to make a romantic drama, but those aren’t filled with such surface oriented characters. These characters want to be funny, but must face reality far too often for the comedy to withstand.
It is interesting that one of the characters in this movie is so obsessed with a romance classic like Doctor Zhivago, because the difference between a classic romance -- comedic or otherwise -- and our inferior modern romance standards struck me as the credits began to roll. It seems the lovers must be kept apart in order for there to even be a movie. Lovers realizing that the other lead is the person they are destined for would certainly shorten the running time of just about every romance ever made. In a classic romance the lover’s are kept apart by situations beyond their control. Modern romances have brought so much self-analysis into the lead characters that it is the characters themselves who keep themselves from seeing what is obvious to the audience. There have been some good romantic comedies made over the last decade and a half, but the last classic romantic comedy I can think of is When Harry Met Sally…. If you’re thinking of going to see Must Love Dogs, do yourself a favor and rent When Harry Met Sally… instead.