Must Love Dogs

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I can’t pretend to like romantic comedies, but I can’t pretend not to like Diane Lane and John Cusack, either. In “Must Love Dogs,” a perfunctory but entertaining rom-com based on a novel by Claire Cook, Lane and Cusack play the parts Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks would have taken a decade ago — except that Lane and Cusack are a little smarter, a little more mature than their predecessors. “Must Love Dogs,” until its sell-out finale, is a rom-com with a brain in its head.

Lane plays Sarah, 40-ish and recently divorced, now the victim of rampant matchmaking by her many siblings. (“Doesn’t anyone have a friend for Sarah?” her father asks. “‘A friend for Sarah’?” she says. “Now I’m an episode of ‘Little House on the Prairie’?”) In the same unnamed Southern California city, there is a man named Jake (Cusack), also newly divorced and being encouraged by his friend Charlie (Ben Shenkman) to get out there and sleep with as many women as he can. But Jake is no cad. He wants something real, you know?

These two meet, inevitably, thanks to Sarah’s sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) posting a profile for her on PerfectMatch.com. After the obligatory montage of Sarah on dates with various losers, she meets Jake, and there is a bit of a spark.

But meanwhile, Sarah, a preschool teacher, has also met Bob (Dermot Mulroney), the father of one of her students. He’s separated from his wife and cute as a button, and this constitutes the film’s only real conflict: Sarah likes two boys at once (three, if you count the fact that Dermot Mulroney and Dylan McDermott are the same person).

I considered this lack of dramatic conflict a flaw before I realized I was enjoying the film anyway. Certainly this scenario is more realistic than most rom-coms, where one of the guys would be an obvious jerk and we’re just waiting for Sarah to dump him, or where Sarah would think Bob only likes her because she lied and told him she’s an astronaut, or whatever.

The film, adapted and directed by Gary David Goldberg, does dissolve into the usual idiocy in the end, with people making public declarations of love and jumping into rivers to pursue one another and that sort of thing, but I suppose a certain amount of convention is required. In fact, hardcore fans of this genre might reject this film on the grounds that it is not formulaic enough.

Lane played a role like this in “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and it suits her. She is just attractive, just intelligent and just old enough to be believable as someone who has been unlucky at love, the sort of woman we all know and adore who is undervalued by her potential dating pool. (I hate when they cast some fashion-model-pretty 22-year-old and expect us to believe she keeps getting dumped.) Between Diane Lane and Joan Allen, I think I’m developing a thing for older women.

And Cusack — well, who doesn’t love John Cusack? He’s counting on it; this role is not substantially different from the one he played in “Serendipity”; apparently, this is what he does now. Which is fine with me if he keeps turning in sharp, funny performances like this one. He and Lane work together as if they’d been scene partners for years. Indeed, the dialogue in general is a notch above the norm, snappy and tight and remarkably unlike the drivel these things usually have. It’s not enough to change my mind about rom-coms, but I’m glad to see a decent one now and then.

B- (1 hr., 38 min.; PG-13, a couple profanities, some mild sexuality; clearly a PG movie, not PG-13.)

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