Must Love Dogs
dir. Goldberg
Opens Fri July 29
Various Theaters

My therapist doesn't like to hear it, but having low expectations works well for me. Take Must Love Dogs, for example. I thought it would totally suck. I looked at the movie poster--which has a photo of Diane Lane sitting on a park bench looking sweet, and John Cusack looking freaked out, and a big black dog between them--and my imagination decided that this movie was about a lady who places an online personal ad, which includes the phrase "Must love dogs." Said lady then meets a guy who somehow falls for her, despite her dog's wacky attempts to muck everything up--something like a romantic comedy version of Beethoven, but with internet dating.

But while there're a couple dogs in the film, there are very few wacky canine antics, and in reality, the story turned out to be about a lonely, damaged divorcee, Sarah (Lane), her crazy family, and her botched attempts at finding someone to hump--er, I mean love.

True, everyone in the film is doing a very poor job of that thing called "acting." But the characters themselves are fairly well drawn. Sarah is mopey and depressed, an older woman who shops for groceries alone, putters around an empty house, and endures constant abuse and ridicule from everyone. Cusack's character is also damaged goods--he's a guy who spends afternoons in strip clubs with his horny buddy, chases pipe dreams, and obsessively watches Doctor Zhivago. It's kind of sweet, really, if you're the kind of person who finds human suffering sweet.

And while Lane and Cusack are clearly meant for each other, Must Love Dogs doesn't easily wrap up their relationship in a tidy package. There are misunderstandings, random hookups, sarcastic relatives, drunk people, and lots of lonely nights before there's even a tiny chance of love. These debaucherous and unexpected elements are refreshing in a romantic comedy, and elevate Must Love Dogs above the expected level of crap. In fact, the film's cute, sad, occasionally heartwarming, sometimes unbelievable, and in the end, something I might watch again on late night TV. Props to you, Must Love Dogs. If nothing else, you're better than Beethoven.