Actors choose films for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s the chance to work with a director they admire; maybe even another actor. Occasionally it’s a big blockbuster to boost the potential for an indie film they want to make. You can usually pick out the motives before the film is ever screened, but its not until after when you can decipher who knows what a good script is and what isn’t. Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp come to mind when picking out their projects. The younger generation of Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire have good eyes. But here you have Diane Lane, a one-time childstar at a peak of her career still putting most beauties to shame on the surface and riding a crest from her nominated turn in Unfaithful. Can someone please explain to her that she doesn’t need to keep playing the lonely divorcee with man problems as she has demonstrated since in Under the Tuscan Sun and now Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy so generic that its label AND what’s inside is nothing but a black-and-white checklist of the lamest rom-com clichés ever invented.Sarah (Lane) is a recent divorcee and surrounded by a clan of relentlessly evil folk known as – The Married. Sarah should feel like a strangulated stuffed animal in a heat index warning since she can’t take a breath without a relative or friend trying to stuff a personal ad or an acquaintance down her throat. Calling them evil is not meant to be cute. In what world do people close to you try to force you into a relationship during a period where mourning comes natural. Imagine at your parent’s funeral if someone close to you tried to adopt you off to another family. We know nothing about Sarah’s divorce except it was recent and yet the opening scene is like an intervention on Stepford Lane. “One of us...one of us...one of us.”
On the other side of the spectrum is the perfect guy for her, otherwise known as the guy who will get shuffled about until the broad comes to her damn senses. He is Jake (John Cusack), another recent divorcee with a friend (Ben Shenkman) determined to get him back in the game while all he wants to do is watch Doctor Zhivago and build wooden rowing boats that nobody wants to buy. The simplest of screenplay commentaries would show the dumped woman wanting a serious relationship while the dumped dude sows his wild oats like Seabiscuit at a stable mixer. That’s not even touched upon though. It’s just two people being forced into a cliché stew with meat so stale not even Sam-I-Am could swallow it.
Getting past the fact that nearly everyone surrounding these two characters is an ignorant, pushy jackass -- who I would love to see involved in a miserable breakup just so someone could show them firsthand what an annoyance they are -- Must Love Dogs drives directly into the standards handed down by unimaginative, loveless writers. First, we must swallow that this is a world in which Diane Lane cannot get a date. Right!
We see the dating decathalon that Sarah must endure with every Mr. Wrong in the stereotype playbook; guys so broadly defined that cartoons would discard them. There’s the serious Mr. Wrong (Dermot Mulroney), a dad whose own son repeats as “incorrigible.” His job is to stretch the running time of the film long enough for Jake to witness one of those awkward moments which will then tack on another act-and-a-half for Sarah to realize any involvement with him is a mistake (which will include jumping into bed with him after the first sign of trouble and the aforementioned awkward moment.)
There’s the timeout for the players to engage in a little impromptu singing. In this case, a family remembrance of Sarah’s love for The Partridge Family theme with Mulroney jumping into gear on the piano since he missed his chance tackling Say a Little Prayer in My Best Friend’s Wedding (when he played a character who recognized such an outburst was rife with stupidity.) It was the gay friend who began the sing-a-long that time. Oh, I almost forgot. Sarah has her own gay buddy, a co-worker (and the only friend she seems to have who isn’t related to her) who keeps popping up to talk about his relationship. If you haven’t experienced this sensation at the cinema, it’s known as DEEP HURTING and there’s no rubbing cream that can save you.I didn’t know who I felt more sorry for during Must Love Dogs – John Cusack or his character, Jake. Cusack was scraping the vicinity of this familiarity with Serendipity but had enough backup in Jeremy Piven and Eugene Levy to at least ease the tension of how frustrating it was to watch the paint-by-number plot mechanics interrupt a romance of promise. Cusack reportedly wrote 35 pages of new dialogue for himself here and the surprisingly few scenes he has with Lane have an off-the-cuff feel that has her trying to catch up on the receiving end of some unusually punchy speeches for a script that should be thankful at least one writer showed up. The film’s best line comes from a late exchange with Christopher Plummer (exuding himself nicely as Lane’s widowed father) who comments on the nature of romance by suggesting that it is the men who suffer most. To which Cusack replies, “with the possible exception of the victims of violent crimes.” Or anyone forced to sit through Must Love Dogs.