By Pete Vonder Haar | July 31, 2005

At this point in filmmaking history, I’m surprised screenwriters aren’t constantly inundating their agents with romantic comedy scripts. There are always a dozen or so in production at any given time, and writing one – if “Must Love Dogs” is any example – appears to be about as difficult as getting Paris Hilton to let herself be filmed during sex. The movie wastes the talents of its two leads by refusing to take any risks with the material, marching in lockstep to every genre cliché.

“Must Love Dogs” presents us with Sarah (Diane Lane) – recently divorced and preparing to dip her metaphorical toes into the frigid waters of the dating scene again – and Jake (John Cusack) – also divorced and still wary of love, choosing instead to sit through repeated viewings of “Dr. Zhivago.” And, if his wardrobe is any indication, he’s a big Ramones fan (as if 75% of the original lineup cares at this point).

Sarah comes from one of those imaginary large families where nobody ever gets drunk and screams at everyone before putting their fist through a wall (she and her sister have a running joke about Carol stealing her high school boyfriend, but that’s as bitter as it gets), while Jake is apparently independently wealthy, as he spends all his time painstakingly crafting wooden boats without selling any of them. Both are thoughtful, intelligent, and sensitive to a fault. How long before these two impossibly compatible and attractive people finally get together? Not too long, as it turns out, as Sarah’s sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) and Jake’s divorce attorney arrange an uncomfortable meet-up for them at a local dog park. Both bring borrowed dogs.

“Must Love Dogs” predictably adheres to all the hoary standards of the romantic comedy: you’ve got the awkward first meeting, an embarrassing musical interlude (once again involving Dermot Mulroney…think he’s pissed off at his agent yet?), the misunderstanding that threatens to tear the couple apart, and the climactic rush to reconciliation that finally puts the audience out of their 90 minutes of misery. Admittedly, there’s some good dialogue here, and the characters have an easy chemistry that makes the proceedings seem almost plausible, that is until writer/director Gary David Goldberg’s bull in a china shop style crushes the life out of everyone in the third act.

Then again, what would you expect from the guy responsible for unleashing “Family Ties” on an unwary world?

If I sound like I’m being unfairly harsh to this movie, it’s because it pisses me off to see Lane and Cusack (especially Cusack) doing this kind of formulaic crap. Lane’s predicament is more understandable, as any woman pushing 40 in Hollywood finds lead roles harder and harder to come by. Cusack, on the other hand…”High Fidelity” was a loooong time ago (2000) in movie years. Sure, we got “Max,” but “America’s Sweethearts?” “Serendipity?” A John Grisham movie? What happened to only taking roles like this in order to get the freedom to make more adventurous and edgier fare? Was that what “Identity” was supposed to be?

I dunno man, maybe it’s time for that “Tapeheads” sequel.

Unfortunately for Goldberg and company, “Must Love Dogs” has even more going against it than simple banality: it’s a bad movie with a title that practically screams to be made into a pun by hack reviewers (e.g. “Bad Cusack, no biscuit,” or “’Must Love Dogs’ is a real howler,” or “These truly are the dog days of summer movie season.” See if I’m wrong). In this case, however, it actually deserves every annoying canine-related insult critics are going to throw at it.

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