Leads Diane Lane and John Cusack undersell the material and come off as likable.
By CHRIS HEWITT
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
"Must Love Dogs" feels like the first four episodes of a new sitcom about a single woman breaking into the dating world.
Fresh, huh? Mary Tyler Moore, Geena Davis, Brooke Shields, Lea Thompson and dozens of others have done these shows with the help of a wacky family, a wise-cracking friend, a montage of bad dates (a boor, a letch, a guy in a toupee) and an improbably gorgeous home. "Must Love Dogs," which stars Diane Lane and includes all of those things, is undoubtedly synthetic, but it's good synthetic, like Splenda, Rayon or the Strokes.
Maybe this is just me being starved for a halfway decent romantic comedy, but I liked "Must Love Dogs," despite its artificial jokes and its there's-no-reason-these-people-wouldn't-get-together-but-here-are-six-reasons-anyway structure, because the characters are smart and the acting nimble. Romantic comedies usually stand or fall on the likability of the leads, and the leads in "Must Love Dogs," Lane and John Cusack, both of whom downplay the shtickiness of the material by underselling it, are very likable.
Lane plays a recently divorced kindergarten teacher who's miserable, or at least as miserable as you can be if you're one of the world's most beautiful women and you live in a picture-perfect Craftsman bungalow that no real kindergarten teacher could afford. Cusack plays an equally miserable guy who also has an In Style photo spread of a place and no visible means of support. Joining them in their beautiful homes are skilled performers including unflappable Elizabeth Perkins, elegant Christopher Plummer and raucous-but-sweet Stockard Channing.
"Must Love Dogs" knows we are onto romantic-comedy tricks, so it makes fun of them. The way movie lovers act like they're the only people in the world, for instance? Here, someone complains that no one suffers more than confused lovers, to which Cusack replies, "With the possible exception of victims of violent crimes."
And you know how romantic comedies always end with one lover racing through the airport just in the nick of time or painting "I love you" on a water tower or chasing after his beloved in a hot-air balloon? Well, there's a scene at the end of "Must Love Dogs" that's even more ridiculous than those (it involves a sculling team), but the actors play it as if they're aware they're in a vaguely silly movie.
"Must Love Dogs" seems to be saying to us, "Yeah, we know this is ridiculous, but what the heck? Why not pile it on even higher?"