One suspects that director Gary David Goldberg chanted the old romantic-comedy formula "boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" as he sat down to write Must Love Dogs. The picture is about as rigidly predictable as any I've seen recently, and very much is wrong with it in terms of both conception and execution. But as audiences have always known and critics sometimes forget, there is a difference between art and entertainment, and this movie is a pertinent example of achieving the latter without approaching the former. Exceedingly well cast and sparkling in other unexpected ways, this is a film that diverts and pleases even though it really shouldn't.
Adapted for the screen from Claire Cook's novel, Must Love Dogs is the story of a recently divorced pre-school teacher named Sarah (Diane Lane at her most fetching) who, to say the least, is apprehensive about returning to the single life of dating. She thinks Bobby (Dermot Mulroney), the separated father of one of her pupils, is an attractive guy, but she believes she ought to avoid personal involvement with her students' parents, even though there is no such prohibition in her faculty handbook.
Eventually and without permission, Sarah's sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) begins posting personal ads on the Internet to try to land Sarah some dates. Carol uses Sarah's high school graduation photo as bait. Among the many unconvincing elements in this movie is Sarah's decision actually to meet some of the men who respond to her personal ad. This early sequence plays like the now-cliched montage where the main character tries on a series of different outfits. Most of the men Sarah meets for coffee or dinner are predictably either losers or creeps: One can't stop crying, while another is forthrightly disappointed that Sarah is so "old"; he thought he was getting a date with an 18-year-old. But Sarah's online dating phase does produce one terrifically funny (and at once poignant) scene whose details I won't reveal, and, critically, it introduces her to Jake (John Cusack), her obvious romantic destiny. We know this movie is about Sarah and Jake rather than Sarah and Bobby because Cusack's name is listed right after Lane's in the opening credits.
The fundamental principle here is ridiculous, unconvincing and arguably offensive (though the execution is so mild that only the most strident ideologue will actually bother to be irritated). The film opens with a social gathering where all the members of Sarah's large Irish family, one after the other, assure her that she'll soon find another man and with him renewed happiness. Lane is so natively level-headed, however, that Sarah seems to need none of this consolation. Yet she never protests, and no one in the flick rises up to proclaim that single people can live full, happy lives, thank you very much, that existential contentment is not restricted to people with mates.
A subplot involving Sarah's widowed father, Bill (Christopher Plummer, as charismatic as ever), emerges fairly early but withers away rather than providing an appropriately supporting or contrasting motif to the central theme. Still grieving for his wife of 45 years, Bill begins dating, too, but remains elusively unwilling to commit to any in a series of women interested in him. This story line presumably exists to register the complaint that attractive women like Sarah have trouble finding second romance, whereas elderly men like Bill, able to date women in a much wider age range, can command more romantic possibilities than they can handle. But this point, like everything in the movie, is so little felt that it barely registers. The main benefit of the subplot is its inclusion of the always entertaining Stockard Channing as Dolly, a sixtysomething woman of the world who is interested in Bill, vivacious enough to attract much younger suitors, sensible enough to ride the vicissitudes of life with grace, and resilient enough to see everything through a lens of humor.
The core story of whether Sarah and Jake will get together is executed with strikingly little urgency. And when the main characters finally summit their mountain of romance, the script delivers back-to-back scenes of appalling imagination. In one Sarah is asked to do something so stupid and so out of character I am surprised Lane didn't demand a rewrite. In the second, Sarah and Jake both have to behave in an utterly unconvincing and annoying way. You do root for our central characters, however. Both are intelligent, sensitive and witty. You like listening to them flirt and then talk seriously. You can imagine their enjoying one another's company, their finding comfort and pleasure in a relationship. In the end, then, whatever the picture's flaws, the performances are so engaging and the dialogue so rich with laughs, you go home with a smile on your face.