Must Love Dogs (review)

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Wag the Dog

I don’t seriously believe that John Cusack actually exists. I think he is a cruel hoax — perpetrated by god knows who — to torture smart single women with the idea of him, that there might actually be clever, funny, cute, grownup guys out there who are philosophical and romantic and straight and available and who still look great in a long black trenchcoat and not like they’re trying to recapture their adolescence or anything sad like that even on the verge of 40. You know, just so we smart single gals don’t all slash our wrists after giving up on finding the perfect man.
I mean, I’ve never seen John Cusack in the flesh. Have you? The things they can do with CGI these days… the odds are far in favor of “John Cusack” being the product of some lonely woman’s imagination than in him actually walking the earth.

Even Must Love Dogs acknowledges that its John Cusack Man — literate, artistic, articulate, passionate; a man who likes to talk about things other than football — is a fantasy. (Far be it from me to confuse John Cusack The Movie Persona with John Cusack The Real Person — if he even exists. I would never presume to assume that he’s anything like the adorable GenX sage he plays onscreen… but in the interest of scientific inquiry and noble self-sacrifice, I volunteer myself to be the one to settle this question once and for all. John, honey, call me.) John Cusack (Identity, Runaway Jury) is Jake, designer and builder of perfect little handmade organic teak boats that no one wants to buy because they all want fiberglass or polymer or whatever. And all he wants is a woman with a story to her life. And he wants passion like he sees in Doctor Zhivago, his favorite movie.

He’s a fantasy, Elizabeth Perkins’s (The Ring Two, Jiminy Glick in La La Wood) Big Sister warns new divorcee Diane Lane (Unfaithful, My Dog Skip), who once again — as in Under the Tuscan Sun — plays a gorgeous, lovely, sophisticated woman whom you cannot possibly conceive has any doubts whatsoever about her attractiveness… particularly in a world where this Fantasy John Cusack finds her irresistible. But you adore her anyway, rather than hate her or roll your eyes or just tune her out totally, because she’s so real and fresh and down to earth and you’d love to be her friend. That’s the really great thing about Must Love Dogs: Cusack and Lane are such authentic people onscreen that even lumbered with romantic-comedy-cliché characters, you can’t help but love them. And they are so bursting with sexy-funny chemistry together that you can’t even be jealous of them — they’d be one of those rare couples that you actually like as much as a couple as you like them individually.

But alas, because Must Love Dogs is a “romantic comedy,” it’s about keeping Cusack and Lane apart as much as possible, as if it weren’t a foregone conclusion that they’re going to get together in the end. And all the stuff that fills up the not-Cusack-and-Lane moments is… not bad, exactly, but it tries way too hard. Watching the movie is like being on a first date, it’s trying so earnestly to be normal and nice and not freak you out and make you like it and maybe marry it someday. Not that it’s lying, exactly, but it’s sugarcoating reality. It’s got Lane’s cutesy-poo big Irish-American family, who are all either interfering but lovable so-and-so’s or dotty but lovable aunts or her philandering but lovable father (Christopher Plummer: Alexander, National Treasure, who’s very charming). It’s got Lane’s gay pal, Leo (Brad William Henke: Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Assassination of Richard Nixon), who’s a constant shoulder to cry on and paragon of relationshipness with his ideal husband and is the kind of friend who drops by for midnight-manicure pick-me-ups when a gal is blue. It’s got Dermot Mulroney (The Wedding Date, Undertow) as Bob, the cute red herring. It’s got Stockard Channing (Le Divorce, Grease) as Dad’s new hippie girlfriend (Channing is great, but with this she’s now officially been relegated to the wacky-old-lady part, which is too bad).

It’s like the movie equivalent of a Pottery Barn catalog, everything neat and organized and arranged just so. The clutter, the mess, the bric-a-brac: that’s where the life, the personality is. There’s no clutter, no mess, no bric-a-brac here. And so there’s me, sitting there like the John Cusack Perfect Man, who’s so desperate for passion and no-bullshit that he implores Diane Lane to let them skip the small talk and talk meaningfully to each other. Must Love Dogs is, unfortunately, 90 percent small talk, and as spectacular as the other 10 percent is, it’s not enough to make the movie the romantic classic it might have been if it had taken the kind of chances on itself that it insists we all must do in our own lives in order to find romantic happiness.

The Cusack guy explains here that no one would remake Doctor Zhivago today because “nobody wants to watch that kind of yearning — they can’t take it.” I dunno if that’s true, but that guy wouldn’t be caught dead at a showing of Must Love Dogs. How does that happen? How does a movie become the antithesis of one of its main characters?

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