Must Love Dogs 2005 (movie dvd review)
I’ve been a Diane Lane fan since her turn as a prodigy chastely kissing Thelonius Bernard under Il Ponte Sospiro in a Little Romance (1979). Lane was 14 at the time and had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. For many years, she was the actress who had done things at early ages, e.g. star in Coppola’s Cotton Club at 19. For a variety of reasons, none of them talent or look, Lane either didn’t get the break or chose not to get the break (Searching for Deborah Winger) that would make her an A list star.
I’ve also been a John Cusack fan. Cusack has made something of a career of playing comic dyspeptics from inverted Clark Gable in the Sure Thing (Rob Reiner’s take on It Happened One Night), to Say Anything’s romantic aspiring kickboxer, to a hyper-competitive air traffic controller in the underrated Pushing Tin, to a list-obsessed record store owner in High Fidelity.
Costarring them seemed promising enough. Unfortunately, Must Love Dogs (2005) just doesn’t hunt at least if you're hunting for inspired laugh out loud comedy. Since Lane made her way back to the low A list playing adulteresses in the very good Walk on the Moon and Unfaithful, it seems like she’s still been struggling to find the right vehicle to build on her Oscar nomination for Unfaithful. Under the Tuscan Sun was a travel brochure disguised as a movie. Fierce People didn’t get general release. Perhaps someone reasoned that romantic comedy would work for her. She, after all, appears to have the biggest necessary ingredient to be a female romantic comedy lead, the camera loves Diane Lane and she certainly can act.
I suspect much of the reason this prolonged Gary David Goldberg ad for perfect match.com doesn’t work the way it should rests with Goldberg's unimaginative direction and episodic script (Family Ties, Spin City). If you remember the dog who serves as the symbol of Goldberg’s Ubu productions, it appears that he decided to turn his company tag line into a feature length movie. Part of the joke in Must Love Dogs is that neither of the principals in the movie actually owns a dog, they’re just borrowed as dating props.
Like the dogs in the movie, Goldberg seems to have borrowed much of the formula for this movie. There’s a straight out of My Best Friend’s Wedding group performance of the Partridge Family Theme Song, he even lets Dermot Mulroney (it happens that he was in My Best Friend’s Wedding as the title character) do the bit where the fishhouse waiter jumps into the scene to play the piano. In another scene Christopher Plummer recites Yeats at a family gathering in a straight steal from the funeral Yeats reading in Four Weddings and a Funeral. In yet another scene, Stockard Channing’s online flame turns out to be younger than expected, any of about twenty John Hughes movies and done much better in another variation in Napoleon Dynamite. Wisecracking sister, shallow best friend, horny senior citizens, blind date from hell walk on montage, to late night condom chase from any of dozen of made for cable comedies or network sitcoms also get put on the leash. In fact, Dogs has a sitcom episodic feel and punchline rhythm, reminiscent of James L. Brooks, another tv writer turned movie maker, at his worst.
The greater sin though is that Goldberg assembles the elements for the formula, then doesn’t seem to pay much attention to how they actually mix. You can see how they’re might have been a movie. Lane’s large family is a bit too overbearing and it hints at more interesting roots for the failure of her marriage beyond the left for a younger woman thing and as a much more organic barrier for her frustrations with intimacy outside the family unit. There’s also much more to the slightly oedipal/Elektra vibe given off by Lane’s relationship with her Irish poet of a father, Christopher Plummer. Similarly, Cusack’s fascination with wooden boats, lifted from Message in a Bottle, doesn’t follow through. The camera never pans the details of the boat itself. In fact, you never see a closeup of Cusack’s hands working on his beloved hand built boat. Instead, Goldberg blunt instruments Cusack’s romantic poet side through his repeated watching of Dr. Zhivago, a riff on Nora Ephron’s script from Sleepless in Seattle with Meg Ryan’s obsession with Affair to Remember. Sadly, Goldberg plays it all as if he were directing for the small screen. Imagine for instance, the wisecracking butcher role in the hands of early Woody Allen or even Ben Stiller (Allen’s more commercialized illegitimate movie son). Goldberg, instead, appears satisfied to gather all his stolen pieces and then apply a minimum of visual or comic imagination to any of them.
The biggest loss may be in the very natural chemistry between Lane and Elizabeth Perkins (they are real life close friends). Perkins character never goes beyond that of wisecracking sister who hands John Cusack a package of meat. In fact, the romantic comedy mongrel quality of Must Love Dogs is oddly reminiscent of another Cusack disaster, America’s Sweethearts which couldn’t decide whether it was a Billy Crystal movie or a Julia Roberts romantic redemption vehicle and wound up campier than the movie within the movie done by Christopher Walken’s character.
Now that I’ve spayed Goldberg’s movie, I’m also going to reverse field. We don’t have an elaborate home theater, just a dvd player, a two speaker stereo, and a 27” Trinitron and in this environment I suspect Must Love Dogs finds its niche in the entertainment multi-mediaverse.
I’ve always had a softspot for sitcoms and I’ve been known to sit in front of the tv for large portions of my life mindlessly watching equally mindless sitcoms and other network fare. The movie fills that hunger perfectly well. Lane and Cusack are always engaging regardless of the material. Perkins, Channing, Mulroney, and Plummer remain fine character actors, even if each one seemed to sprout from some different movie or breed of dog in this movie. I should mention that Julie Gonzalo who plays a pre-school aide/later model competition in the movie will also likely soon be everywhere. In any case, I suspect this was a career detour or decent paycheck for all of these actors, all of whom did their parts perfectly competently here.
I do, however, wonder if Lane has the slight looniness needed to make romantic comedy her niche. For some reason, her most memorable roles have always been sexual adventurers from Lonesome Dove to Walk on the Moon even vehicles like Little Romance and Fabulous Stains shared that tension. Even when Lane does wholesome e.g. My Dog Skip or Hardball, there’s the a sexual feel to it that may not be as blatant as Big Town or Unfaithful, but it makes casting her as mainstream perky girlfriend character risky. I don’t think Goldberg had any idea what to do with it.
If they changed the name to Might Like Dogs or Kill Some Time with Dogs and billed it as a movie length sitcom/romance, I’d certainly recommend it. To be honest, as much I find fault intellectually with the movie, my wife and I sat and watched the thing without complaint and even laughed at times. Sometimes shallow, derivative, and predictable makes for perfectly satisfying home entertainment. Think of it as taking gourmet ingredients and turning them into perfectly good leftovers for a tv dinner.
Rating: two and a half milk bones.