U.S. Release Date: July 29, 2005
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Composer: Craig Armstrong
Cast: Diane Lane, John Cusack, Colin Egglesfield
Running Time: 1 hour and 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (sexual content)

A Limerick for the Dating Game
by Scott Holleran

Writer and director Gary David Goldberg's offbeat dating comedy, Must Love Dogs, is intended purely as a little romance for a few good laughs. After going over several bumps, and this schmaltzy concern, based on a novel by Claire Cook, is not the sort of movie to pick at, Goldberg (he created NBC's sitcom Family Ties) comes through with good entertainment.

It's not without problems, so let's get those out of the way, starting with John Cusack's off-putting boat builder, who stews in his own melancholy, watching David Lean's Doctor Zhivago over and over to repeat the sense of romance he seeks after losing his wife in a divorce. This guy's more than a few bricks shy of a load, and the idea is that he associates love with heartache but it doesn't quite work (and Cusack's a bit long in the tooth to be replaying his Say Anything role). Worse: his best friend (Ben Shenkman) is the scum of the earth and it undercuts Cusack's character. Other complaints include a plot with more holes than a Wiffle ball.

But Must Love Dogs is mainly the story of Diane Lane's divorced pre-school teacher, whose Irish Catholic family suffocates her with the notion that she's meant to love again. On this charming pretext, the movie almost elevates Lane above the lusty roles she's been playing lately. Her family is too big—nervy Elizabeth Perkins' meddling sister and a brother or two would have sufficed instead of this large a litter—but it serves its purpose. They show up one day, led by their widowed father, Christopher Plummer—one of Hollywood's best and hottest actors—determined to get sis back in the game of life and love.

Mr. Plummer, whose distinguished career includes performances as Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King and Aristotle in Alexander, forms the movie's moral center, romancing Stockard Channing (Grease) in her big hair and bangles, reciting Yeats and Browning and making everything sound magnificent even when it isn't. For all his frustrating old father shenanigans, he's on hand to represent love's triumph.

Not that daughter isn't trying hard, and Must Love Dogs gives modern dating the full, Internet age treatment, with Lane dating some real doozies. As she goes from spaghetti straps and perms to all-black and hair-tight bun, she finally comes to a fork in the road between intense Cusack—an idealist who builds custom, wooden boats to perfection—and Dermot Mulroney's scholarly stud, whom she meets at school when his son (Bobby Coleman and can this cute kid act) gets a nosebleed.

Mulroney's too good to be true, Lane's too hot to trot and Cusack's too much baggage to carry, but the whole thing gets deeper under the skin than one might have guessed. The theme that falling head over heels requires accepting what's real isn't particularly profound, but it produces a bittersweet, surprisingly surprising—and totally contrived—conclusion that shakes off the silliness, means it and makes you want to hold hands. Brad William Henke, Julie Gonzalo and lightning bug Jordana Spiro as Sherry—who's practically an entire generation by herself—add sparks to the supporting cast.

Anyone who has loved or dated, and hated doing either, especially while sitting in front of a computer, probably understands Lane and everyone else here (including the marrieds) and some of the writing really socks a punch. Must Love Dogs has its dogs, too, and it leaves a few doggy piles, but it plays like a sweet, if clumsy, limerick to love.

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