`Dogs' rolls over and plays cute


July 29, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A beautiful woman just through a wrenching divorce, having trouble getting back in the dating game? Check.

A litany of oddball would-be suitors? Check.

A sensitive guy who would prove the perfect match if only she'd give him the chance? Check.

A gay friend to provide comic relief? Kids saying the darndest things? Cute dogs? Check, check and mucho check.

Must Love Dogs betrays not one original thought, riffing yet again on the abject misery endured by unattached singles looking for dates. Its cast is game, and there are more than a few laughs buried inside the script, but it's hard to drum up much enthusiasm for just another variation on a well-worn theme.

Oh, and one other thing: Is it absolutely essential that the heroes/heroines of a film like this be played by the most appealing actors possible? Sorry, but it's just hard to imagine a world where a woman as beautiful as Diane Lane, and as appealing as the character she plays here, has trouble finding a date.

Lane is Sarah, a divorced kindergarten teacher reluctant to date again. When she refuses her family's attempts at matchmaking, big sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) plops Sarah onto a dating Web site, describing her as a voluptuous dog lover because that, she believes, is what men are looking for.

Now that would have been an interesting angle for this movie to pursue, the question of just how truthful people are when posting themselves on the Internet. But Must Love Dogs is too insistent on being cute to pursue anything worth pursuing, so the identity issue remains pretty much ignored.

Sarah's ad eventually attracts the attention of Jake (John Cusack), a similarly wounded victim of divorce who has spent much of his adult life looking for a romance out of Doctor Zhivago, the 1965 David Lean film about a sporadic, long-standing and doomed love affair set against the Russian Revolution. Some things to know about Jake: he's a boat builder who's apparently never sold a boat, yet seems to be living comfortably middle-class, and he has enough free time to watch a three-hour-plus movie almost daily.

Doesn't sound like a bad life, even if he rarely dates, but Jake, too, has a friend who is worried about him. Thus does Jake meet Sarah, and thus do the romantic sparks start flying - although, for reasons never quite believable (or fathomable), Sarah keeps resisting.

Lane is wonderful, Cusack is adorable, the supporting cast - including Dermot Mulroney as a rival suitor for Sarah and Christopher Plummer as her wise, if a bit randy, father - are all cute and quirky. And did we mention the dogs?

Writer-director Gary David Goldberg (creator of TV's Family Ties) knows what makes for a successful sitcom - simple characters put in amusing situations they can charm their way out of. But he doesn't seem to know much else; his characters desperately need depth, not to mention the occasional hard edge. Mulroney's character is supposed to come off as something of a cad, but he seems like a pretty regular guy trying to endear himself to an attractive member of the opposite sex. Not much to rail against there.

Think you know where this film is going? You do, and the best thing about Must Love Dogs is that it takes only 88 minutes to get there - short enough to enjoy the film's modest, well-worn pleasures, but not so long that you feel your time could have been put to better use elsewhere.

Must Love Dogs

Starring Diane Lane, John Cusack

Written and directed by Gary David Goldberg

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13 (sexual content)

Time 88 minutes

Sun Score ** (two stars)

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