Ah, movie divorce. The dinner over the sink loneliness. The ice cream out of a carton sadness. The bad date montages. About three-quarters of the way through "Must Love Dogs," Sarah (Diane Lane) suffers her first big romantic setback, at which point my viewing companion keeled forward and croaked, "Oh my God. Of course she's wearing bunny slippers."
"Must Love Dogs" must not love movies very much because it takes Lane, John Cusack, Dermot Mulroney, Elizabeth Perkins, Stockard Channing and Christopher Plummer and forces them to reenact the entire unabridged Encyclopedia of Treasured Romantic Comedy Cliches and Chestnuts, Revised Second Edition.
I won't dwell on the fact that Sarah is a preschool-teaching, animal-loving recent divorcee with a dead mother, an incidental gay co-worker (thrown in to comply with rom-com regulations) and a pearl-of-wisdom dispensing Irish dad (Plummer) who actually says things like "that's a fine how d'you do" and "your sainted mother" in the corniest Irish brogue this side of the Lucky Charms leprechaun. But by the time his kooky trailer-park lady friend, Dolly (a mop of russet curls draped over the head of Stockard Channing), leads everybody in a hearty round of the Partridge family theme song, I wanted to call Amnesty International.
Director Gary David Goldberg, a veteran television writer whose production company UBU produced "Family Ties" and "Spin City," knows how to write a joke but not how to leave it hanging anxiously in the air waiting for a laugh track that never comes. Cusack manages to not let this get to him. But the camera keeps a wary, some might suspect court-ordered, distance of about 30 feet at all times.
While Sarah's family stages dating interventions, the kids at school say the darndest things. Which is how she learns about one adorable moppet's "incorrigible" and recently separated dad, Bob (Mulroney). Meanwhile, her sister Carol (Perkins) signs her up for an Internet dating service.
Drawn to Bob, but worried about engaging in an inappropriate parent-teacher association, Sarah dutifully suffers through a bad date montage -- a weeper here, a pervert there -- until she meets Jake (Cusack), a sensitive, "Doctor Zhivago"-loving boat-builder.
Oddly, neither Sarah, Bob nor Jake owns a dog of their own, borrowing them instead from friends and family as the need arises.
Soon, Sarah finds herself drawn into a "Doctor Zhivago"-style dilemma of her own -- torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool after somebody turns out not to be the dreamboat he appeared to be.
For a while, it looks as if the title might refer to something Sarah must learn to do, but fate, one of those really weird combination website-graphics programs that exists only in the movies and the luck of the Irish turn her fortunes around.
'Must Love Dogs'
MPAA rating: PG-13
Times guidelines: A tame dating movie with some sexual innuendo
A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Director Gary David Goldberg. Producer Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd, Gary David Goldberg. Screenplay by Gary David Goldberg based on the novel by Claire Cook. Director of photography John Bailey. Editor Eric Sears, Roger Bondelli. Costume designer Florence-Isabelle Megginson. Music Craig Armstrong. Production designer Naomi Shohan. Art director Kevin Kavanaugh. Set decorator Kathryn Peters-Cardinale. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. In general release.