Must Love Dogs

By Kim Hollis

July 27, 2005

Yeah, I pretty much took this job for the paycheck, too.

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In the future, when people look up "chick flick" in the dictionary, Must Love Dogs will almost certainly appear as a heavy-duty reference point. Harmless and fluffy, the film is an amusing trifle that is so jam-packed with estrogen, guys who attend the film might feel compelled to watch several hours of girls jumping on trampolines to get their manhood back intact.

The movie follows the general trajectory that can been found in most chick lit novels being published these days. The story centers on a preschool teacher named Sarah (Diane Lane) who has found herself unhappily single at the hands of an ex-husband who simply fell out of love with her. She, of course, is charming, attractive, and ever so slightly neurotic. When her family attempts to convince her to jump back into the dating pool, she expresses reluctance, not certain that she's in a place where she can love again. Nonetheless, her sister goes ahead and surreptitiously enrolls Sarah in an online dating service, with one of the requirements being that the man "must love dogs." Once the responses start rolling in, Sarah reluctantly agrees that she'll give dating a shot.

Naturally, the results are more or less catastrophic at the outset. The first date is ridiculously embarrassing and uncomfortable, but it nonetheless had my audience howling with laughter. A succession of over-the-top dates follow, until Sarah finally meets a strange guy named Jake (John Cusack) at a dog park. Both Sarah and Jake happen to be there with dogs that don't belong to them (neither one is in truth a dog owner) and Jake begins their meeting by accidentally insulting Sarah in a variety of ways. It's a first encounter that seems doomed at first glance, but since it's John Cusack, you know that's not going to be the case.

It's no easy road for Sarah and Jake, though. Put off by his strangeness, Sarah continues to shop around a bit, including a strong crush on the father of one of her students (Dermot Mulroney). She continues to see Jake off and on, but events seem to keep conspiring to keep them apart. Since the film is truly a product of its genre, there's never much doubt as to how the story is going to end, but there are a fair number of surprises along the way.

While the movie is generally enjoyable, there are a number of inconsistencies throughout the script that are too troublesome to ignore. Sarah does things from time to time that you simply *know* her character would not do, at least from what we've come to learn about her. The same applies to Jake in at least one circumstance. Also, while Sarah is extremely close to her family, there's not enough time to flesh them out to the point that we care much about what happens to them.

As Sarah, Lane is basically following the same character model that she created in Under the Tuscan Sun. Sarah is certainly likeable - she's smart, wryly funny, sometimes sarcastic, and the kind of woman who might live right next door. One of Must Love Dog's strong points is Lane's quick comic timing - she fires off some terrific lines that are sometimes so fast and furious, they're almost easy to miss.

The movie's highlight, though, is John Cusack. I do admit extreme prejudice here as I am an admitted Cusack fan going back to his earliest films. However, I think that even if I didn't love his work, I would find Jake to be the most interesting character. The problem is, Jake simply isn't onscreen enough. I accept that the story is really about Sarah and her attempt to find "true love" after divorce, but the film would probably have been better served to be "their story" rather than just "her story". Variety's review of Must Love Dogs mentions that Cusack almost seems to be in a different (and better) film than the rest of the cast, and this comment is absolutely correct. And John Cusack with a puppy? That's swoon-worthy in its own right.

The supporting cast isn't given much to do other than either bolster Sarah's spirits or drag her down. Christopher Plummer is interesting as her father, but Stockard Channing (playing one of his paramours) really outshines him. Mulroney is sort of slogging along as the charismatic cad, and Elizabeth Perkins is a matronly, sweet sister. Special note should probably go to Jordana Spiro, who plays a ditzy young woman and date fodder for Jake. She gets some of the movie's funnier jokes and delivers them with aplomb.

Despite the movie's foibles, I'd still recommend it on the strength of Cusack's performance and some nice work from Lane. In particular, fans of Under the Tuscan Sun will certainly find Must Love Dogs to be a tasty treat.



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