Puppy love: Pooch ploy pays off

Chemistry is sometimes overrated. Sure, it did a lot for Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but in Must Love Dogs it's the strength of the individual actors, Diane Lane and John Cusack, that makes you believe them as a couple. That's enough, because they spend most of the movie apart, mooning first for anyone and later for each other.

Based on a novel by Claire Cook, who's apparently big with the "chick lit" crowd, Must Love Dogs was written and directed by Gary David Goldberg. He's better known for TV work (Brooklyn Bridge, Family Ties) but has knocked out a couple of decent movies, Dad and Bye Bye Love. The latter was a contemporary comedy about divorce, as is Must Love Dogs.

Sarah Nolan (Lane) and Jake Anderson (Cusack) are both smarting from recent divorces and wouldn't get back in the dating pool unless they were pushed. Sarah's push comes from a family "intervention," and she has a large Irish Catholic family– three brothers, two sisters, and a recently widowed father (Christopher Plummer). It's sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) who posts her profile, including the title phrase, on a website.

Jake is pushed by his lawyer and best friend, Charlie (Ben Shenkman), who answers Sarah's ad in his name and makes a date for him, even lending Jake a dog to take along. Sarah's dog is furnished by her brother Michael (Glenn Howerton).

Not quite an infomerical for Internet dating, Must Love Dogs shows any number of the creeps you can meet and dicey situations you can get into; but it also shows the right people are out there, and you can meet them if you keep looking.

The last of the romantics, Jake builds wooden boats that no one wants to buy. (What trust fund underwrites this hobby is never explained.) Sarah teaches at a pre-school where the kids say the darndest things and are all too Hollywood-cute. One of the fathers, Bob Connor (Dermot Mulroney, going glamorously gray) is cute too. He's the first man Sarah takes an interest in.

At first, everything with Bob is smooth and romantic with both of them saying the right thing at all times. Sarah is concerned because he's the father of one of her students, but Carol advises, "He has a Ph.D. and a great ass. Let's not get bogged down by ethics." (She could have had a job in the Clinton cabinet.)

With Jake, of course, everything goes wrong because they care too much to say the right things. The usual plot contrivances keep them apart until it's time for them to get together.

Sarah's father finds romance too– several times. The most promising is with Dolly (Stockard Channing, letting herself go to play a real woman of her real age).

What Sarah calls "my model for a successful relationship" is a male couple, one of whom (Victor Webster) teaches at her school. (Perhaps significantly, he's never shown interacting with the children.) They've been together seven years.

Blondes should prepare to be offended by Jordana Spiro as Sherry, the office slut that Charlie keeps trying to push on Jake. She's mostly just a concept until late in the film when she has a scene that's truly hilarious (unless you're blonde). Julie Gonzalo represents for blondes as yet another teacher, more intelligent than Sherry if not necessarily more virtuous.

Goldberg's sitcom background shows in his script, which contains more and better one-liners than you'll find in an equivalent running time on network television, even continuing through most of the closing credits. Being in television, he should know a new version of Doctor Zhivago aired recently, invalidating Jake's claim that his favorite movie can never be remade.

Must Love Dogs is populated with a cast that believably portrays people who are just like you and me, only infinitely more witty and clever.