3 stars (out of four)
Diane Lane and John Cusack -- two actors who know exactly what to do with a good line or two -- meld into one of those eloquently sexy, old-style Hollywood romantic-comedy couples in "Must Love Dogs," a blithe new film about Internet dating.
Lane plays preschool teacher Sarah Nolan, recently divorced and trying to re-enter the dating game via cyber-flirting. Cusack is boat-builder Jake Anderson, a superficially brash but softhearted guy whose favorite movie is "Doctor Zhivago." Together, these two cook up, with effortless style, that special erotic alchemy we look for in movies like this.
I was charmed by "Must Love Dogs" (the title is Internet-date shorthand), and it was mostly because of Lane and Cusack -- though it was also due to writer-director Gary David Goldberg (1989's "Dad"). His script is full of complex and lively love patter, which Cusack especially rattles off with sometimes breakneck speed.
Unfortunately, the movie isn't as seductive as its stars. Based on Claire Cook's amusing novel, it's smart, saucy and glamorous enough. But, despite Cusack's best efforts and all that fine, racy talk, it isn't always funny enough. In its own way, it's a higher-class formula job. ("Wedding Crashers," which initially looks like a much dumber picture -- a wild and crazy buddy-buddy sex romp -- has a lot more laughs and almost as much charm.)
"Must Love Dogs," though, has some things a lot of today's romantic comedies don't have and need badly: smart dialogue, bright characters and a pair of lovers who don't look as if they belong at a college bash or in a gossip column. Playing the movie's thirty-something couple (though Lane is 40 and Cusack 39), they remind us how sexy maturity can be.
Maturity, in fact, is the plot motor for this tale of two people who've been there before, been burned and are now re-entering the fray. Sarah's nudged back by her buttinsky family, primarily her nosy-Jessica-Parker of a sister, Carol (Elizabeth Perkins), and her rambunctious seventy-something dad, Bill (Christopher Plummer), who owes to the Internet his own active romantic life with much younger women, including jolly Dolly (Stockard Channing, unbuttoned). In a scene illustrating the dangers of the cyber age, he even pops up unknowingly as one of Sarah's computer dates.
It's Carol who, without permission, signs up her sister for the date site and writes her mostly imaginary precis, highlighted by "voluptuous" and "sensuous" and, as a fictitious requirement for prospective mates, "must love dogs" (when Sarah doesn't have one). Jake is one of a number of cyber-hunters -- mostly a mind-boggling collection of weepy, obnoxious or macho creeps -- who show up in response. In Jake's case, he has something different: a dog that doesn't belong to him and an attitude that initially turns Sarah off.
What follows are the usual complications: cute kids, schmoozing relatives, more dogs and more computers. And there's another solid erotic possibility for Sarah: Dermot Mulroney as smooth Bobby, father of one of Sarah's preschoolers and a guy so unthreateningly suave, we know there must be something wrong with him, too. The story of "Must Love Dogs" is actually a classic Hollywood boy-meets-girl format with a meet-cute opener. But it looks more original here, in a movie where, gratifyingly, they woo each other with words rather than the soundtrack score.
What makes it work as well as it does is the handling. Sarah and Jake zing up their wisecracks with the kind of effortless polish and sexiness we associate with the primes of Tracy and Hepburn, Cary Grant and Roz Russell, Woody and Diane (Keaton), or other top-of-the-line comedy couples.
When Cusack's Jake rhapsodizes over the joys of "Zhivago," he makes you hear comic balalaikas. When Lane's Sarah mulls over the vagaries of Internet dating communication (what does "voluptuous" really signify?), it warms the cockles of your heart. Both remind us how much better romantic comedies are when crackling dialogue is as much a part of the game as glamour and sex gags -- and when not every movie couple looked as if they thought Justin Timberlake was the grand old man of show business.
Lane radiates such a drop-dead gorgeous, delightfully amused brio that one part of her role seems a stretch: How can a woman like Sarah, whatever her age, possibly have any problems meeting or attracting men or finding someone who speaks her language?
Whatever the language, Cusack speaks it with almost nerve-rattling speed and fluency. Cusack has always been an actor who can rattle off dialogue like a sprinter, and Jake whips off speeches like a smitten tobacco auctioneer; it's a character obviously tailor-made for the star of super-verbose comedies such as "High Fidelity," "Bullets Over Broadway," "The Sure Thing" and the very aptly named "Say Anything."
Writer-director Goldberg has been out of the directorial loop a while -- his last film was 1995's failed fatherhood comedy "Bye Bye Love" -- and that may account for the fact that this movie seems more smart than funny. But audiences starved for this kind of movie shouldn't mind; most of them will relish the encounter. Perhaps though, the movie should carry a requirement of its own: "Must love dialogues."
"Must Love Dogs"
Directed, produced and written by Gary David Goldberg, based on the novel by Claire Cook; photographed by John Bailey; edited by Eric Sears and Roger Bondelli; production designed by Naomi Shohan; music by Craig Armstrong; produced by Goldberg, Suzanne Todd and Jennifer Todd. A Warner Brothers release; opens Friday, July 29. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content).
Sarah Nolan -- Diane Lane
Jake Anderson -- John Cusack
Bob Connor -- Dermot Mulroney
Carol -- Elizabeth Perkins
Dolly -- Stockard Channing
Bill -- Christopher PlummerCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times