Must Love Dogs

Recently divorced and terrified of the dating scene, Sarah (Diane Lane) is unwilling to meet new men, even with the almost psychotic pushing from her large family (including Elizabeth Perkins and loose, charming Christopher Plummer). Dipped into the online dating pool against her will, Sarah meets Jake (John Cusack), another victim of divorce who is just as reluctant to date. The two hit it off, but so do Sarah and Bob (Dermot Mulroney), leaving Jake unsure where he stands. Finding two men she likes for the first time in a long time, Sarah must figure out what to do with her suddenly new found love life.

Only in Hollywood would people make movies about how Diane Lane has trouble finding dates.

Almost a companion piece to her incredible work in 2003’s “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Must Love Dogs” hands the fiercely talented actress another sad-sack divorcee role and expects her to work magic with it. Mercifully, Lane’s the type of performer who can, and “Dogs” is kept out of the pound by the magnetism that Lane has made look easy in her recent projects.

“Dogs” is adapted from the book by Claire Cook and brought to the screen by Gary David Goldberg, the television mastermind behind “Brooklyn Bridge” and “Family Ties.” Goldberg hasn’t made a feature film since 1989’s “Dad,” yet “Dogs” shows no signs of rust. In fact, Goldberg attacks the romantic comedy cliches that hound “Dogs” repeatedly by digging in deeper than usual with the characters. Sure, Goldberg occasionally loses his marbles and includes ugly, sitcom sequences, such as one where Sarah and her family sing and dance to the “Partridge Family” theme song. Yet, surrounding these migraine-inducing scenes are rich performances and thoughtful characterizations shaped smoothly by Goldberg. “Dogs” doesn’t quite drill down to the heart’s core, but you’d be amazed just how well Goldberg gets his ideas and performances across without the material ever getting too labored or cutesy.

Goldberg even manages the impossible and gets Cook’s multi-character novel into reasonable fighting shape. There’s a multitude of roles in “Dogs” that clearly had more time to roam on the written page, yet Goldberg doesn’t mourn their absence. Though he indulges Christopher Plummer and his patriarch character, the rest of the film keeps its eyes on Sarah and her dilemma. The peripheral characters just add spice, and their presence is never felt as a gap in the storytelling. I wish more filmmakers had this skill.

The ace up Goldberg’s sleeve is Diane Lane, and in “Dogs,” the actress delivers another sincere, rich performance in a role she knows how to knock around well. Again bravely playing up her age, Lane refuses to pity Sarah, and just plays her as the hurt, bemused person she is. Lane is the cream of this confection, and there’s no one working today who could play this role as well as she can. Thankfully, she also shares great chemistry with a delightfully doughy John Cusack, and their snappy back-and-forth makes for some of the picture’s best moments.

“Must Love Dogs” succumbs to the worst romantic comedy trappings for the finale, but by this time Goldberg has done such an outstanding job keeping his audience invested, that flights of formula don’t hurt the soul a bit. “Must Love Dogs” is dependable filmmaking in an uneven genre, and it’s a treat to see it sail evenly.

Rating: B
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