There's a telling moment in the middling romantic comedy Must Love Dogs: John Cusack, a lonely guy on his first real date with fellow divorcée Diane Lane, breaks dating etiquette by demanding that they end the small talk and start saying something real about themselves. For two vulnerable people still on the mend from the painful dissolution of their marriages, the chance to talk openly about their feelings comes as a relief, not least for an audience sick of their empty banter. Actors like Cusack and Lane have both been around the block a few times now, and they're just too smart and too mature to be put through the usual romantic-comedy paces, with all the obligatory meet-cutes and gay best friends and silly misunderstandings. For once, the movie should just stop the small talk and allow these seasoned performers to reveal something true about their characters, but writer-director Gary David Goldberg, the veteran TV producer behind Family Ties and Spin City, just keeps the riffs coming.
With chilling echoes of You've Got Mail, the Internet instigates much of this modern romance, courtesy of an online dating service that seems to provide 20 frogs for every Prince Charming. Egged on by an extended family that tries desperately to hook her up, Lane reluctantly enters the market, and is initially rewarded with middle-aged losers who are ill-mannered, looking for a woman half their age, or, in one case, weeping openly at the dinner table. When she meets Cusack, a recently divorced moper who spends his days carving handmade boats and watching Dr. Zhivago, the two initially get off on the wrong foot, but their chemistry is undeniable. Meanwhile, Lane retreats to her preschool-teacher job, where she's confronted by another option in Dermot Mulroney, a single father whose snake-oil charm blinds her to his less-heroic qualities.
The sun has been setting on many of the actors in Must Love Dogs, not just Lane and Cusack, but also welcome faces like Elizabeth Perkins, Christopher Plummer, and Stockard Channing, who all enjoy meaty supporting roles. In this sense, the film posits itself as a romance for grownups, tinged with the hard lessons on loss and regret that face people entering their later years without someone special by their sides. It's a touching concept, but Must Love Dogs isn't any more mature than other rom-com coughed up on the When Harry Met Sally factory line. Goldberg has tried to get out of television before with risible ensemble dramedies like Dad and Bye Bye, Love, but television hasn't gotten out of him: Characters talk in setups and punch lines that sound annoyingly pre-rehearsed. Even pushed across by such a seasoned cast, the dialogue and the movie seem as canned as a Must-See TV laugh track.