The romantic comedy – what can you say? The genre has been around for centuries. Shakespeare may have popularized the concept but it goes back even further than that. Somehow, though, we’re still not tired of them. That’s not to say Hollywood puts out winners every time, but occasionally someone mixes enough spice into the run-of-the-mill recipe and we’re offered something that women can revel in and men can pretend to tolerate while secretly enjoying.
Must Love Dogs is hardly an example of a fantastic romantic comedy but it yields enough charm and originality to be ranked slightly higher than “just another Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie”. The story is as familiar as Grandma’s homemade pancakes. Sarah (Diane Lane) and Jake (John Cusack) are a pair of divorcees too nervous and distraught to re-enter the dating rat race. Friends and family neglect their own interpersonal problems by interfering with Jake and Sarah’s. The weapon of choice: the internet.
Only slightly more innovative than the AOL chat rooms touted in You’ve Got Mail, the story revolves around internet dating websites, the kinds that are more heavily advertised online these days than free I-pods and discount Viagra. After the traditional shaky first meeting, Sarah and Jake run the gambit of relationship barriers in full blown rom-com decathlon style. No, there’s really nothing particularly special or original about these two characters or their situation. Instead, the movie chooses to bestow its creative impulses on the supporting cast. The result is a story full of the usual scenarios but none of the usual suspects.
The role of the woman’s supportive best friend has been replaced by an entire family. Sarah’s clan is on a mission to see their beloved sister/daughter back in a happy relationship. Though heartfelt, the familial advice often goes astray creating copious opportunities for Sarah’s efforts to blow up in her face. Jake is the one with the best friend this time around, but his buddy isn’t much help either. Like the typical guy he could care less whether Jake is actually happy so long as there’s some action going on. What with this being the 21st century and all, it would hardly be politic to have a heterosexual romantic comedy without a token gay character. Enter Sarah’s portly, good natured friend and co-worker whose interactions with his hunky, sensitive boyfriend are Sarah’s model for a successful relationship. My dear, there’s your problem: your perfect man is playing for the wrong team.
Just as colorful as the characters are the actors playing the roles. Christopher Plummer dons his best Irish accent and digs in deep as Bill, Sarah’s free-spirited yet nurturing widower father. I understood exactly why he was given the role when half-way through the film his character was called upon to recite an entire passage of Yeats’ poetry. After all, this is the guy who managed to pull of playing a Klingon who quotes Shakespeare. Stockard Channing adds bite to Plummer’s considerable presence as the leading contender in his modest but ever-growing harem of golden girlfriends. Too bad the only song they give her to sing is the theme song from the Partridge Family.
As for the leading man and lady, they’re a great couple in the making, but there’s little chemistry there to bind them together in the end. Cusack’s brilliant sense for self-deprecating humor and Lane’s classic wit and sarcasm mingle perfectly for all those early relationship bantering sessions but when the two finally get together and all the emotional barriers come crumbling down, so does the movie’s magic. It can’t be a good sign when you’re rooting for the lovers not to get together because you don’t want the fun to stop. Instead of coming away from the movie with a warm heart, I found myself not really caring that true love was found, rather how much fun it was watching the suffering that went into finding it.
As DVD releases go, Must Love Dogs is flat-out disappointing. Almost everything on the bonus material roster is more like a teaser for an extra. If you’re going to put in bonus items, whether they be few or many, for crying out loud please try and do them right.
I’m convinced that for every ten minutes of movie time there’s a solid minute of gag reel footage out there waiting to be enjoyed. Is it really so hard for a director or producer to pick them out and hand them to some editing intern to be strung together with a clever bit of soundtrack? Apparently so, since all we get from the set on this project are two outtakes involving Elizabeth Perkins and a piece of frozen meat. Take one: Elizabeth accidentally hits Diane in the head with meat. Take two: Elizabeth accidentally hits John in the groin with meat. End gag reel and any additional interest I had in the bonus menu.
Three deleted scenes, which really amount to three extended scenes, felt like the kind of stuff trimmed out to save time and keep Christopher Plummer from completely outshining the rest of the cast. Director David Goldberg actually provides a little bit of commentary for these deleted tidbits. That raises the question: was the guy too lazy to make a commentary for the whole movie? Not only did he direct it, he adapted the screenplay from a novel. You think the guy would have a word or two to share but no such luck.
The third and final bonus item is the original theatrical trailer. As great as it is to see trailers included, they’re the least a DVD producer can include so it’s not much of a consolation. Perhaps the movie suggests one must love dogs, but there’s nothing says you must love the disc. It’s great for seeing the movie itself but that’s about it. A note for Mr. Goldberg: next time hire some film school lackey to wander around the production with a video camera and treat us to some behind-the-scenes action. I hear Stockard Channing will sing “Sandra Dee” with anyone willing to sing along.