Must Love Dogs, it should be clearly stated, is not the greatest romantic comedy ever made about a quirky couple who meet at a dog park. That honor goes to Dog Park, the oddball 1998 flick starring Luke Wilson and Natasha Henstridge, written and directed by former Kids in the Hall star Bruce McCulloch. You’re probably more likely to gravitate to a movie starring John Cusack, however, and this isn’t a bad second choice; canines appear to bring out the best in screenwriters as well as fictional big-screen lovers.
It’s hard to believe that a major studio has actually turned out a romantic comedy that doesn’t suck; Lord knows we have suffered through some bad ones lately (The Perfect Man, anyone? No? Good for you). Thankfully, Cusack almost never appears in crap, and even when his movie is a dud — Max, for instance, or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — it’s generally a unique loser that only failed because it tried something different.
Must Love Dogs certainly isn’t all that unique. You know more or less how it’s gonna go, with man and woman meeting each other, hitting it off, screwing it up, misunderstanding something, being sad, and finally one of them running to try to catch the other in order to loudly say “I love you.” But the movie does find fresh ways to tweak the formula, making it more than the sum of its broad strokes.
For one thing, writer-director Gary David Goldberg (adapting a novel by Claire Cook) achieves something rare for the genre: He makes us understand how two people played by such obviously beautiful and smart actors as John Cusack and Diane Lane can have dating woes. Lane, playing preschool teacher Sarah Nolan, is neurotic and highly judgmental of others (while displaying the exact same faults she detests in them); Cusack, playing boat builder — yes, a boat builder — Jake Anderson, is uncomfortably intense, obsessed with Dr. Zhivago, and owns way too many Ramones T-shirts. Also, he’s a freakin’ boat builder! Who never sells any boats! How he makes a living, when his entire occupation seems so futile, is never indicated. Perhaps when one lives and works in Hollywood for as long as Goldberg has, the notion of simply indulging hobbies and letting the finances take care of themselves just seems natural.
Goldberg knows a little something about the outside world, though: That whole Internet dating thing sure is hip! In a smart display of cross-promotion, Sarah’s family posts an online profile for her on a site called Perfectmatch.com, which just happens to be a real online dating site sponsored by the Lifetime cable channel, which has a video distribution deal with Warner Bros., which is putting this movie into theaters. As product placement goes, it at least makes sense within the story. Anyhow, Jake sees the ad and goes on a date with Sarah. He’s way too weird for her the first time around, but eventually she gives him another shot.
Sarah, however, has her hands full with other matters: A seemingly endless supply of siblings, among them Elizabeth Perkins, who are unduly obsessed with her personal life. A macho Irish dad (Christopher Plummer), who dates three women at once, and even has them all sit together at the dinner table. Another potential love interest in the form of Dermot Mulroney, whose son is one of Sarah’s students and gets to say some of those wacky, wise-beyond-his-years lines that kids often say in the movies. As luck, or rather screenwriting contrivance, would have it, Mulroney’s character lives in the same trailer park for divorcés that one of Dad’s dates also inhabits.
Yes, some contrivances are a bit much — there’s a rather too sitcom-ish misunderstanding involving a character walking in on a kiss that isn’t what it appears — and most of the plot complications involve issues that could easily be resolved if one of the people involved would just pick up the damn phone. But the characters actually acknowledge that last point, which is nice. And there are some strange and unexpected peripheral twists. Indeed, this movie is no dog, but feel free to love it anyway.