The romantic comedy as a genre has a long and cherished history in Hollywood films, dating all the way back to silent days. Following essentially the same formula, some of them have fizzed, while others, more than not, have fizzled. "Must Love Dogs" (2006), regrettably, is mostly a fizzle.
You remember the formula: Boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; boy and girl don't know it yet; boy and girl face a multitude of conflicts; then, at a point where it appears that all is lost, boy and girl discover their love for each other and live happily ever after. The boy and girl are usually young, in their twenties or thirties, but they can be any age, really, from very young to very old; and the filmmakers can easily combine the genre with other movie types--screwball or satire, for instance.
Think of some of the most-popular romantic comedies of the past eighty years: "The Gold Rush" (1925); "It Happened One Night" (1934); "His Girl Friday" (1940); "Pillow Talk" (1959); "Lover Come Back" (1961), "Harold and Maude" (1971); "A Little Romance" (1979); "Moonstruck" (1987); "When Harry Met Sally" (1989); "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993); "While You Were Sleeping" (1995); "You've Got Mail" (1998); "Kate & Leopold" (2001); "Hitch" (2005).
Now consider "Must Love Dogs." It takes the same formula, adds two attractive leads, Diane Lane and John Cusack, and fails to make the list. Why? Well, think about what the key ingredients are in a romantic comedy. A raise of hands: Anyone? Anyone? That's right: Romance and comedy, neither of which puts in much of an appearance in this movie. "Must Love Dogs" is negligible and largely mundane, a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy with little in it to offend but little in it to praise too highly, either.
The movie is about two thirty-something divorcées looking for love. Now, here's the thing: The women we're first introduced to even before we meet Diane Lane's character rather set the tone for the rest of the movie. Namely, the women are all gorgeous and seeking men. But we can't see any of them having trouble finding someone, an issue spoofed momentarily but not enough with the appearance of a pair of supermodels. Then we meet Sarah Nolan (Lane), a recently divorced preschool teacher, and we look at her, and we wonder again, Why in the heck would this woman have a problem finding a guy? (In fact, every woman in the picture is beautiful, including Sarah's sisters and even her teaching assistant. In the movies every woman is beautiful. Don't you just love Hollywood?)
Anyway, Sarah is moping around while her whole family schemes to find a guy for her, with everybody talking like a movie script. When Sarah's sister says she has a friend for her, Sarah replies, "A friend for Sarah. I'm now an episode of 'Little House on the Praire.'" The characters all talk this way, in clever banter that is not very realistic, very amusing, or very revealing. Indeed, it is television talk, the kind of repartee that would be followed on TV by a guffaw from the laugh track. This is something we might expect, though, because the entire film moves along from one incident to another like episodes of a TV show. In one such episode, Sarah is shopping for herself in a supermarket and argues with the deli man about a chicken. It's cute but not particularly original, again like TV fare. Is it possible this resemblance to television comedy could stem from the movie's having been adapted, written, and directed by Gary David Goldberg, whose prior writing and producing experience was largely in television, going all the way back to the old "Bob Newhart Show"? Sounds like. His one previous theatrical release was the movie "Dad," with Jack Lemmon and Ted Danson.
Meanwhile, across town Jake Anderson (John Cusack) is a free man at last, his divorce papers having finally come through, and he's on the lookout for a woman. His profession is building boats--small, handcrafted, custom-made wooden boats that never sell. There is no mention that I could find about how he actually makes a living doing this if he never sells anything, but the boatbuilding business shows us what a disciplined, idealistic, sensitive, caring fellow he is. He's also a hopeless romantic, his favorite movie "Doctor Zhivago." OK, the book on which Goldberg based his screenplay was written by a woman, Claire Cook. Maybe it shows.
Like so many romantic comedies of the past few decades, this one favors an abundance of pop tunes on the soundtrack, which presents another dilemma because most of them are better than what we see happening on the screen. There were more than a few moments when I wished the action would simply stop, and we could listen to the music. Not a good sign.
So, we've got these two people whose spouses have left them hanging, and they're both on the lookout for somebody new. How do they get together? Sarah's sister, Carol (Elizabeth Perkins), puts Sarah's profile on-line with an Internet dating service, Perfectmatch.com, together with her high school graduation picture and a proviso that she is looking for somebody who "must love dogs." Then, typical of this film, dogs play almost no part in the film beyond that and the title. Jake's horny best friend and divorce lawyer, Charlie (Ben Shenkman), gets him to check the on-line dating services, where he answers Sarah's ad. (But not before the filmmakers show us the disastrous results of Sarah's first half dozen dates, which are a better part of the movie.)
There was one memorable moment in the picture for me. On Sarah's first real date with Jake, she wears a low-cut dress to impress him, a dress her sister insists she buy. Jake is impressed. I can't help remembering that exactly the same thing happened on my first date with my wife; her sister made her buy the dress. I was impressed. It's a conspiracy.
Again as a reminder that the screenwriter-director based this movie on a novel, we find a large number of supporting players. There are the sisters, Carol and Christine (Ali Hillis), and there's at least one brother, Michael (Glenn Howerton). But more important, there is Sarah's father, Bill, played by Christopher Plummer, who practically steals the show. Bill is also single, his wife of forty years having recently passed away. Therefore, Bill is dating again, too. Plummer is so good an actor, so charming, so honest, that the entire movie could have centered on him and his main romantic interest, Dolly, played by Stockard Channing. Still, I guess that wasn't in the book. Besides, this romantic comedy is about younger people, not sixty or seventy-year-olds, no matter how handsome or engaging they may be.
Now factor in Bob Connor, the father of one of Sarah's students, played by Dermot Mulroney. He is the "other guy," Jake's competition, an impossibly perfect foil--just divorced, incredibly good-looking, and working on his Ph.D. in American history. Expect the obvious everywhere in this film.
The movie does get sweeter as it goes along, but it's like the television comparison I made earlier, where the TV show may be pretty bland but audiences get used to it and caught up in it, anyway, because the characters become like family through the familiarity of sheer repetition.
Sarah and Jake get off to a rocky start, date other people, but keep running into one another until a monumental coincidence finally brings them together. It all becomes rather monotonous, but we do get the anticipated feel-good ending, which is what makes these things ultimately, if not entirely, worthwhile. "Must Love Dogs" could have used a longer leash and a lot more frolicking in the park.
One could hardly fault the video quality on this excellent-looking DVD. The movie's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio shows up only a tad less wide at about 2.17:1, and the WB engineers have transferred the enhanced, anamorphic image to disc at a high bit rate. Black levels are intensely black, so the rest of the colors come up deep and rich in contrast. You may see a few very minor moiré effects, but you will see virtually no grain or other defects in the product.
The English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is exceptionally smooth, with clean, clear dialogue that caresses the ear. There is also an impressive stereo spread and a subtle use of the surrounds for small ambient effects. Mostly, the rear channels see action in the musical department, though, which is understandable given the nature of a dialogue-driven movie.
I can't say there was much in the way of extras that interested me. There are four additional scenes, with optional director commentary, that last about eight minutes. There's a one-minute "Pass the Beef" gag reel, based on the continual flubbing of a scene. And there's a widescreen theatrical trailer. Beyond that, there are twenty-four scene selections, but no chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
There is nothing remarkably good or remarkably bad about "Must Love Dogs." It is a garden-variety romantic comedy that adheres strictly to the rules of the game and comes out looking like a typical TV sitcom. The presence in the cast of Diane Lane, John Cusack, Dermot Mulroney, and Christopher Plummer help to elevate the material beyond its prosaic nature, but it isn't quite enough to make the movie a romantic-comedy classic. Fortunately, however, it's not a complete disaster; although you'll see it and forget most of it an hour later, it will not have been an especially unpleasant memory.