Must Love Dogs

(2005) ** Pg-13
98 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Gary David Goldberg. Cast: Diane Lane, John Cusack, Elizabeth Perkins, Christopher Plummer, Dermot Mulroney.

Hollywood figured out long ago that John Cusack is the romantic lead guys find bearable. Cusack is the man most guys assume that they are: soulful but funny, attractive but not threateningly so, unfairly put upon. As the new romantic comedy Must Love Dogs proves, Cusack is also a bargain. Writer-director Gary David Goldberg (creator of Family Ties) hired Cusack to play boat-building divorcé Jake, and offered to let the actor rewrite lines to suit his character. 35 changed pages later, we get another lovable Cusack kvetcher.

Ostensibly Must Love Dogs (adapted from Claire Cook's novel) revolves around Diane Lane's Sarah, a divorcée with a meddling extended family. Like Jake, she's skittish about jumping back into the dating pool, via internet personals. "Dating again?" whines Lane. "I can't do this!" (And after Under the Tuscan Sun, who can blame her?) The inelegant use of a real internet dating site turns Must Love Dogs into what may be the longest, most expensive commercial ever filmed, with undernourished, manipulative characterization to match.

Goldberg does a decent job of feinting for most of the running time, though we know who's going to wind up with who. This is cutesy stuff, breezily amusing but not too punchline-happy. Dingbatty allusions to William Butler Yeats and Dr. Zhivago (Jake's favorite wallowing movie, a la An Affair to Remember in Sleepless in Seattle) happily distract from this film's utter lack of substance, Cusackian philosophy notwithstanding. Supporting players like Dermot Mulroney, Elizabeth Perkins, Christopher Plummer, and Stockard Channing pull their weight in a basically weightless and disposable date movie.

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