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Must Love Dogs

Must Love DogsRating: ****
Director: Gary David Goldberg
Cast: Diane Lane, John Cusack, Elizabeth Perkins, Christopher Plummer, Dermot Mulroney and Stockard Channing

Review:

Divorce is brutally real. It’s one of the most traumatic experiences a person can endure without involving a funeral director. Romantic comedies, conversely, are ridiculously unreal. Almost without fail, they trivialize human emotion in any form and reduce it to cliché, pantomime and the lowest-denominator mentality of the TV laugh track. Thus, marrying the pain of divorce to the froth of the romantic comedy genre would seem to be a recipe for disaster. The best you can hope for is a Nora Ephron movie, and that’s like sliding off the listing deck of the Titanic with the hope that the water won’t be too cold.

More up-front disclosures, delivered as though to head off a bad first date: It’s directed by a guy (Gary David Goldberg) who made his career in sitcoms (“Family Ties,” “Spin City”), and if anything is going to make a romantic comedy more trivial and disappointing, it’s extra sitcom flavor. This is why Matthew Perry has so much free time these days. Second potential deal-breaker: It’s based on a novel that has a decidedly chick-lit vibe (this gleaned, admittedly, from reading reviews and, God help me, brain-dead Amazon postings, rather than the actual book). If we’re counting strikes, that’s more like a pop fly to shallow center.

With these probable handicaps, the fact that “Must Love Dogs” is not just an entertaining film, but one with honesty, depth and nuance, is a victory on the level of little polio kids dropping their crutches to run with puppies. And let’s see them blurb that for the TV spot.

The film is not without flaws, but there’s really solid material here in Goldberg’s adaptation of Claire Cooke’s novel. What elevates the occasionally uneven screenplay is the flawless casting, led by Diane Lane and John Cusack. Both imbue their characters with genuine life. Reports have it that, invited to tweak his lines as needed, Cusack gave Goldberg 35 new pages of dialogue. This may explain why, despite having derived from a woman’s novel about a woman’s life, it’s Cusack’s scenes, often with his stock-character best buddy (played well by Glenn Howerton), that most consistently shine. But both Cusack and Lane manage to lace even the script’s weakest moments with threads of genuine emotion.

Diane Lane and John CusackTwo examples of the stars rising above the occasion: Cusack’s forlorn divorcé Jake has a habit of watching “Dr. Zhivago” over and over, and even gets the relentlessly shallow Howerton to sit through multiple viewings. This is pure Nora Ephron bullshit: To make your crap-ass film appear to have emotional resonance, have characters rhapsodize about a truly classic film as you insert clips of said film. Add 135 pounds of Meg Ryan ham and cook at 350 degrees for 94 minutes. But even in these pandering moments of formula fallback, Cusack does what he does best ““ he infuses every scene and every line with the impression that he’s actually thinking and acting on the fly, that this is real and there is no script. Few actors do this as convincingly, and even here, where he’s doing stock Cusack by emoting about love and pain and longing, it sells.

Lane has a bigger challenge. As the main character, the fragile and lost lead in a chick flick, there are plenty of opportunities for her talent to sink in a swamp of maudlin tripe. But she goddamn refuses, and there are scenes in which she soars. Many a lightweight actresses would’ve crashed and burned. There’s a scene in which she finally bonds with Stockard Channing, the tacky girlfriend of Lane’s dapper, aging Irish father (a graceful Christopher Plummer). She’s finally telling the simple story of how she ended up divorced on the cusp of middle age:

Her marriage was on a listless track forward until it came time to have kids, but her never-seen former husband was never “ready.” Until finally he left her for a woman 15 years younger. “They got married two months ago,” Lane says. And, in one of the film’s many moments of arrestingly underplayed acting, adds, “Did I mention that she’s pregnant?” The line is an
invitation to cheese, but Lane undersells it in a way that’s devastating.

Another fine moment: Lane’s widowed father has become quite the player, bringing three aging dates to every family function. Later, he’ll tell us with resignation that, having lost the one love of his life, all he’s doing now is marking time ’til the grave. But before that, Lane asks Channing why she puts up with it. Channing shrugs. “When you care about someone, and they’re in a lot of pain, you cut them some slack.” It’s simple, lovely, and it throws two supporting characters into a whole new light. This and easily two dozen similar moments make the script’s many missteps all the more unfortunate.

This movie should have been so brilliant that speechless critics nationwide were reduced to aching sobs of admiration ““ the potential is that strong. Instead, easily a third of the movie is functional but disposable. To illustrate Lane’s stark emotional landscape, we sit through a montage of bad personal ads and worse first dates. Every second of them is trite and familiar, but the clichés serve as shorthand, moving us quickly past the necessary business so we can get back to the real story.

Which the movie utterly betrays as an excuse for a third act. Just as Cusack’s awkwardly intense Jake is finding his footing with Lane’s tentative, vulnerable, Sarah, the film pulls a “Three’s Company.” Every episode of that remarkably crappy sitcom revolved around a misunderstanding with a sexual subtext. Janet hears Chrissy say she’s “late,” and tells Jack their roommate is pregnant. What pseudo-hilarity ensues is dependent entirely on none of the key characters having a simple and obvious conversation.

In this case, enter Dermot Mulroney. Mulroney does a great job in the role of the Other Potential Romance in Lane’s life, but the script uses him stupidly, having him deliver an unwelcome kiss to Lane that is inconveniently witnessed by Cusack. Rather than the leads talking it out in, say, 40 seconds, they go defensive and spend several months of narrative time apart, depressed, pining and throwing themselves into cheap, tawdry disappointments. The actors handle these chores deftly, but all you want is for the sitcom fakery to be swept away so we can see the cautious dance between Lane and Cusack, the real fears, hopes and scars being vividly exposed.

Yet we sit through 30 minutes of shenanigans when we could watch these two wonderfully matched actors piece together the brittle shards of their broken hearts because those moments of cinematic crack make the wait between fixes worthwhile. It’s actually amazing, though, that Goldberg can deliver those moments of aching clarity and these pointlessly diverting
plot entanglements (possible relics of the source material). It’s a testament to the actors that, flaws aside, I’d like to run another 2,000 words extracting from my notes every golden moment in the effort to fix in print the refined magic of Diane Lane and John Cusack.

Go see this film, and pay more attention to the acting than to the spots where the plot sets up stock characters and situations. Lane, Cusack and Plummer, particularly, overcome the occasional contrivances and coincidences of story defect ““ there’s marvelous work being done here, even if it is bracketed by title and credit sequences that rip off the godmother of trite, manipulative romantic comedies (“When Harry Met Sally,” of course) to provide “interviews” with characters telling the stories of their dating or romantic lives. This film has its shaky moments, but the actors leave the tripe of perky Meg Ryans and bloated Renee Zellweigers behind.

five degrees of separation

As Good As It Gets – Similar depth and heart, also
from a top-notch cast led by a director with a sitcom resume.

High Fidelity – John Cusack as the luckless
lonely-heart everyman. This is what he does, and he rarely does it better than he does here.

Out of Sight – If it’s grown-up romance you want, take this slick Elmore Leonard adaptation. Steven Soderbergh gives us arguably the best love scene ever, and Clooney and Lopez really click.

Under the Tuscan Sun – Diane Lane faces middle age again, with a better location.

The Truth About Cats & Dogs – More love and pets. This time with Ben Chapel and Janene Garafalo.