To properly appreciate "Must Love Dogs," one must first love John Cusack. Thesp's maverick turn steals the show in this otherwise middling romantic comedy, which retools standard meet-cute elements for the Web generation in pleasant but uninspired fashion. Fortunately, the charming match-up with Diane Lane goes down smoothly enough.

To properly appreciate “Must Love Dogs,” one must first love John Cusack. Thesp’s maverick turn steals the show in this otherwise middling romantic comedy, which retools standard meet-cute elements for the Web generation in pleasant but uninspired fashion. Fortunately, the charming match-up with Diane Lane goes down smoothly enough. Affectionate interest in both leads could generate solid distaff B.O. early on, though word-of-mouth won’t sizzle.

This is the first film in more than 15 years from writer-director Gary David Goldberg, a veteran TV scribe (“MASH,” “Lou Grant,” “Family Ties”), and some viewers may recognize the Ubu Prods. credit (in this context, “Sit, Ubu, sit! Good dog,” Ubu takes on an entirely new angle).

Even when it doesn’t entirely succeed, Goldberg’s literate screenplay has an old-fashioned, almost preternaturally classy vibe, recalling a time when characters chose their words more carefully and spoke at greater length. Yet the script also betrays a weakness for quaint, obvious humor and a habit of striking its notes with too-on-the-nose precision.

Viewer is thrown into the premise from the very first frame, in a sitcom-like ensemble scene that finds divorced preschool teacher Sarah (Lane) being pressured by her mob-like family — an intervention, they call it — to return to the dating scene. The most meddlesome of the bunch is Carol (a perky Elizabeth Perkins), who, without her sister’s permission, signs Sarah up for an Internet dating service, with a fake online profile that describes her as voluptuous and includes the requirement of the film’s title.

At 40, the stunningly beautiful Lane brings the right twinkle of careworn radiance to her role, with a simmering undercurrent of anger that emerges briefly but fiercely. Lane is too lively and bracing a presence, however, to sell Sarah’s occasional moping — which doesn’t seem to fit Sarah anyway.

Sarah fields plenty of undesirable bachelors through the dating Web site — including, in a mortifying coincidence, her own father (Christopher Plummer). Unfortunately, the bachelor vignettes turn out to be notable less for their comic payoffs than for Sarah’sfascinating assortment of hairdos (styled by Candy L. Walken).Somewhat more satisfyingly, she also starts a flirtation with Bob (“Call me Bobby”), the newly separated dad of one of her young students, played by Dermot Mulroney.

It takes Sarah a while to finally meet Cusack’s Jake (at a dog park, naturally), though auds are introduced to him well before that. Philosophical and hyper-articulate, a builder of racing boats whose favorite weekend activity is watching “Doctor Zhivago,” Jake is a hopeless romantic and master of comic introspection.

Cusack’s offbeat perf is a dazzling display of nonstop verbiage, so prodigious it’s tempting to suspect that the actor, who always seems to be sneaking in dialogue ahead of and behind the beat, was allowed free rein to improvise. Non-fans, however, may recoil from what is essentially a mellifluous stream of blarney, one not too far removed from the other soulful smart alecks Cusack has played in the past. Indeed, Sarah is put off by Jake on their first meeting.

Goldberg’s script eventually reveals a subtle yet unmistakable strain of moralism, largely dictated by which characters are sleeping together and which aren’t (Sarah and Jake get in the mood, only to find themselves on a wild goose chase for contraceptives). Given the frivolity of most mainstream movie sex, this selective prudery weighs in as almost refreshing.

By contrast, the promiscuous Bob(by) is set up rather too tidily as a straw villain, though Mulroney plays him with the right combo of sleaze and charm.

Pic underlines its point by giving Sarah’s father an online companion of his own, played with poignancy by Stockard Channing. Supporting is solid, especially Brad William Henke in the token role of Sarah’s gay best friend, and Plummer, who adopts a gentle Irish accent as Sarah’s father. Craig Armstrong’s lilting musical score is noticeably Irish in flavor.

Less successful is an embarrassing musical number halfway through, in which Sarah and the family bust out in “Come On, Get Happy” — a regrettable attempt to match the joie de vivre of the “I Say a Little Prayer” sing-along from “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

Must Love Dogs

Production

A Warner Bros. release of an Ubu/Team Todd production. Produced by Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd, Gary David Goldberg. Executive producers, Brad Hall, Ronald G. Smith. Directed, written by Gary David Goldberg, based on the novel by Claire Cook.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), John Bailey; editors, Eric Sears, Roger Bondelli; music, Craig Armstrong; production designer, Naomi Shohan; art director, Kevin Kavanaugh; set decorator, Kathryn Peters-Cardinale; costume designer, Florence-Isabelle Megginson; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), David M. Kelson; supervising sound editor, Mike Wilhoit; associate producer, Julie Ragland; casting, Joanna Colbert. Reviewed at Mann Chinese 6, Los Angeles, July 15, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Sarah - Diane Lane Jake - John Cusack Carol - Elizabeth Perkins Bob - Dermot Mulroney Dolly - Stockard Channing Bill - Christopher Plummer
With: Julie Gonzalo, Brad William Henke, Ali Hillis, Glenn Howerton, Ben Shenkman, Jordana Spiro.

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