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Must Love Dogs   D

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Gary David Goldberg
Writer: Gary David Goldberg (based on the novel by Claire Cook)
Cast: Diane Lane, John Cusack, Dermot Mulroney, Elizabeth Perkins, Stockard Channing, Christopher Plummer, Ali Hillis.

Review by Rob Vaux

Ten Great Big Nos in Must Love Dogs:

1. No Chemistry.
Our token couple, Sarah (Diane Lane) and Jake (John Cusack), generate all the romantic energy of the county morgue. She's a divorced preschool teacher, he's a divorced boat builder. Their first meetings are deliberately awkward, and while we are assured that magic lies beneath the surface, it never shows up. This makes subsequent developments uncomfortably arbitrary, and the stars simply don't click together at all. It's hard to have a rooting interest in these two when you honestly think they might be better off apart.

2. No Structure.
The key dramatic impetus is an eventual triangle between Sarah, Jake, and Bob (Dermot Mulrony), the smarmily charming single parent of one of Sarah's kids. Director Gary David Goldberg misplays the buildup from the beginning, robbing it of any tension or anticipation. Various other story threads progress without rhyme or reason, giving the impression that entire scenes could be switched around without anyone noticing. The results destroy every one of the important beats that movies like this need to survive.

3. No Laughs.
The jokes are flat and hackneyed, the mood artificially ratcheted to studio-mandated breeziness. Within it, little of the screenplay's already-labored humor can escape.

4. No Emotional Truth.
The fault here lies largely in the performances... which is a shock, considering how talented the two leads are. Lane's perpetual nurturer Sarah supposedly carries scars of her divorce (which we occasionally see in contrived moments of vulnerability), but it's mostly lost beneath a constant, disaffected grin. Cusack has no character to latch on to and is reduced to the vaguely clever one-liners of his Lloyd Dobler days. Neither of them expresses feelings that we can relate to, or develops their characters into anything other than cutouts.

5. No Originality.
Time and again, Must Love Dogs trundles out the dullest, most shopworn clichés it can find. Precocious children, wacky elders, montages of lousy dates... not a single stone goes unturned in the quest for rom-com banality. The gorgeous Newfoundland dog on the posters is the only memorable thing in sight. Everything else just fades into indistinguishable mush.

6. No Connection to Reality.
This is a common complaint in romantic comedies, but it's particularly egregious here. The characters seem to inhabit a wonderful universe where no one has to work and everybody has plenty of shiny material possessions. Jake evinces an artistic commitment to the boats he builds, but never sells any of them, which leaves one wondering where he gets the money for his swanky loft/shop. Sarah lives in a gorgeous house despite her schoolteacher's salary (though I suppose she could have received it in the divorce). They reside in a magical city that bears signs of LA, but features Eastern-style river punting, of which we Angelinos have none. Within this environment, characters function only according to the dictates of the fragmented plot, devoid of any heart or soul.

7. No Understanding of Online Dating.
A central story point revolves around Sarah's reluctant entry into the world of online personals ads. Though You've Got Mail touched on the subject, we really haven't seen it developed properly (which, considering its popularity, is something of a surprise). There's a ripe opportunity to deflate some of the trend's more ridiculous foibles, but here, too, Must Love Dogs drops the ball, reducing the topic to a few lame swipes at disingenuity. A more definitive take on the subject would produce far better results than what we're given here.

8. No Sympathetic Supporting Characters.
In another raging cliché, Sarah is saddled with an eccentric, ethnically based family -- Irish this time -- who periodically meddle in her personal affairs. It's supposed to be equal parts exasperating and endearing, but it comes across as borderline stalker-esque. These people have no sense of boundaries -- or priorities -- or responsibility to each other as family. Sarah's dad (Christopher Plummer) engages in creepy lothario behavior like bringing three dates to the same dinner, while her sister (Elizabeth Perkins) first takes control of Sarah's dating life and then laughs at the inevitable humiliating mishaps. Similarly, Jake's lone friend (Ben Shenkman) plays the shallow lawyer shtick so intensely that one wonders why Cusack doesn't simply drop what he's doing and run. Even the most undemanding romantic comedy needs to fill out its ranks with more approachable characters than these.

9. No Olive Branches In the Ongoing Politics of Date Night.
Dragging your boyfriend/husband to this movie will give him the leverage to demand multiple screenings of Jerry Bruckheimer films as penance. Ladies, you have been warned.

10. No Mercy on the Audience.
The film is 98 minutes and feels longer than Gone with the Wind. Every second glued to the seat is a second that could be better spent elsewhere: the dentist's chair, for example, or sampling untested medical products. There hasn't been much to speak of in the way of light counterprogramming this summer, but Must Love Dogs is nobody's idea of an answer. It's more like a lapse in judgment: unfortunate, misanthropic, and best forgotten as quickly as possible.

Review published 07.28.2005.

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