I would have thought that by now, screenwriters and producers would have begun to think twice about making movies with the word “dog” in the title, considering how often this leads clever critics to call the film itself a dog and joke that the title is descriptive of the film in more ways than one. A glance at Rotten Tomatoes three days before the release of Must Love Dogs reveals several examples of this sort of cutting wit, including perhaps the most convoluted one of all time: “If you love this movie, you’re figuratively obeying the title’s injunction.” How can you argue instead?
Overzealous writers notwithstanding, Must Love Dogs isn’t a dog, or in the doghouse, or any such brilliant turn of phrase. It does commit several lesser sins, most of which can (and will) easily be forgiven, foremost among them its rigid, intransigent adherence to the romantic comedy formula. Sometimes I wonder how to treat a movie like this: do I take the formula as given and merely try to evaluate the execution, or do I fault it for a lack of imagination and originality? The former seems complacent and the latter disingenous. But at the same time, it’s not merely about execution, and formula does not preclude imagination: it’s possible to find inspiration within a formula, and this is mostly where Must Love Dogs runs into trouble. Formula is forgivable; roteness less so.
The story, adapted by director Gary David Goldberg from a novel by Claire Cook, indeed puts us through the motions; it’s the cast — human and canine alike — and some of the stuff in the margins that make the film tolerable at worst. John Cusack and Diane Lane sound like a rom-com dream team, and it’s pretty much true: they bring with them an adult charm and worldliness that Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy can never match, grounding the film even when the screenplay is at its silliest. To be fair, said screenplay does sometimes give them a helping hand with a witty one-liner here and there, but mostly, the stars are on their own.
The film’s biggest frustration — and it is somewhat to its credit that it inspired an emotion as intense as frustration — is that it manages to create its own bizarre romantic comedy universe where all of the characters are completely insane. Apparently, if you are not in a relationship for eight months following your divorce, this is cause for utter, immediate panic. Everyone is convinced that if you are alone even for a short period of time, you are required by law to be miserable, which is usually manifested by sitting despondently in one’s bathtub. The protagonists’ friends, posting personal ads for them and constantly prodding them to go on dates, would not remain friends very long in the real world, as any sane person would quickly tell them to go to hell and not come back. Who are these people? What is wrong with them?
I guess that too is part of the formula, and it’s true that most romantic comedy characters have romance as their sole concern. But it just seemed more grating than usual here: for all intents and purposes, not a single line of dialogue is spoken that doesn’t have to do with dates, sex, love, etc. And of course it’s overwhelmingly in an obnoxious way: the supporting characters have one note that they hit over and over again, and after a while we’re just going in circles. With this being the case, there’s nothing anyone could have done to make Must Love Dogs anything more than an amusing lark.
And it is that, to a certain extent. The ending indulges in age-old love story conventions, with the main characters (and their dogs) utilizing every imaginable medium of transportation in order to reconcile misunderstandings and reach each other’s arms. It’s kind of touching, in its way, and it’s neat to see actors like Cusack and Lane hurl themselves into this particular formula. You may laugh; it’s all very cute, and I suppose the movie does its job. But I must admit that this sort of stunning typicality is pretty damn depressing, and not even the cast can do much about that. It’s not a dog, but it is what it is. You decide if it’s worth your time.