July 29, 2005

Must Love Dogs

Directed by Gary David Goldberg Starring Diane Lane, John Cusack, Elizabeth Perkins and Christopher Plummer

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A romantic comedy is often like an old dog that can't learn new tricks. You already know how a story like this is supposed to go. She's still nursing wounds from a previous relationship. He's sensitive and artistic, yet disillusioned about love. At the insistence of their outrageously meddlesome and sometimes unintentionally obstructive friends and family members, the lovelorn singles finally cross paths. Complications such as their insignificant others soon threaten to extinguish any romantic sparks. But in due time they realize that they're really perfect for each other and reunite blissfully. Nora Ephron and the estate of Jane Austen, get your attorneys on the phone pronto!

Though Must Love Dogs may seem redundant, one can't nail the studio for being derivative since the film is actually a faithful adaptation of Claire Cook's novel of the same name. As far as cookie-cutter romcoms go, very few come close to the towering level of charm and poignancy achieved by The Truth about Cats & Dogs (a Cyrano de Bergerac update with animals!) and this is unfortunately no exception. Nevertheless Must Love Dogs (You've Got Mail with puppies!) generates a healthy dose of smiles and chuckles with its impossibly cute banter and some wonderfully plausible scenarios - even through those two elements ultimately work against one another as if dogfighting over the same turf.

When Diane Lane's Sarah goes on a blind date with John Cusack's Jake, they nervously blab out discrepancies between their assumptions and reality before they fatalistically brace themselves for imminent disappointment. He tries too hard to impress her at times and emanates a little creepiness. These observant vignettes are unexpected and delightful. Then there's the too-witty, too-wistful moviespeak - like Sarah telling her sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) "You don't meddle with my life" and Carol responding "Technically, you don't have a life", or in a different scene Sarah musing "He wants the full dance and I'm just learning the steps". All those sweet nothings kind of roll over the film's preciously genuine moments and expose the fact that this is really just an escapist middle-aged female fantasy.

At 40, Lane is exactly how Cook described preschool teacher Sarah. She adds some interesting nuance, and her shower-stall breakdown here briefly brings to mind that mesmerizing improvised train scene in Unfaithful. Cusack supposedly improved writer/director Gary David Goldberg's screenplay by rewriting some 35 pages, but he doesn't really embody that slightly manic intensity his role seems to demand. Besides, his turns as a romantic lead mostly invoke unflattering comparisons to Say Anything ...

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.