Gary David Goldberg, 2005, US, 98 mins
Diane Lane, John Cusack, Christopher Plummer
What to do with gifted, Oscar-nominated actresses who've crossed the rubicon of 40 and reached the prime of their life? Hollywood 's answer: stick them in a romantic comedy for divorcees. The latest victim to appear in a long line of adaptations of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is Diane Lane, whose performance in Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful was so committed that even the Academy couldn't ignore it. But that nomination confers upon her the status of star and there are few roles being written for female performers of this age and calibre. And so Lane finds herself carrying this dreary rom-com about a newly-divorced woman back on the dating merry-go-round who has the unfortunate luck to find herself tackling every ineligible bachelor in town before coming across John Cusack at the dog park.
Ah, yes, the charisma-free Cusack. There's a good book to be written explaining why this actor has cast such a spell over both mainstream and independent directors. Indeed, Must Love Dogs' director David Goldberg was apparently so enamoured of Cusack's talent that he let the actor change his dialogue at will. The story goes that he received back 35 pages of corrections. You wouldn't know it. Cusack's mission seems to be to make the dialogue as low-key and cliché-free as possible, working against the usual fluff found in these films. Goldberg follows his cue and underplays almost every scene. But that means all the romantic punch is taken out of the couple's encounters and any chemistry is stifled at birth.
And there's no point getting all postmodern with your material if ultimately it stills includes such classic stand-bys as the loveable Oirish father figure, the cute dog and the obligatory race against time at the end to tell "the one" that you love them. Except that there's no clock ticking away at all here and certainly no reason for Diane Lane - Diane Lane ! - to jump into a river and flail after a seemingly disinterested Cusack in his handmade canoe. The pained expression Lane carries throughout the film is just screaming, "I'm too damned intelligent for this - get me out of here!"
But what's really disturbing about such films is the uncomfortable questions they raise about modern storytelling. For example, what is it about Americans and the father-daughter relationship? Why does almost every film featuring a strong female protagonist have her actions thrown into relief by a loveable patriarchal figure with no mother - either dead or divorced - in sight? And then there's the lifestyle issue. Lane's character is recently divorced and a primary school teacher, yet she lives in a mansion and drives a car that looks like it's been nicked from the back lot of a James Bond movie. The attempts at making this romance more realistic do not extend to showing people with no money, it seems. And indeed, they need it, the amount of time they're on the Internet. Even if you didn't know that the ubiquitous PerfectMatch.com was an actual website, you'd still feel that the film was an extended advertisement for all the ways that little home computer can make your life so much more exciting.
It's not so much a case of product placement as a wholesale agenda for the modern woman. Nowhere is this more acutely felt than in the main thrust of the storyline - that Lane absolutely must find a new partner, irrespective of her own apprehension at the idea. In the most beautifully-played scene in the film, she blithely tells Cusack that her estranged husband simply "stopped" loving her. But the poignancy of that moment is undermined by a film which finds every friend and confidante mercilessly pushing her onto the next fiasco of a date and shows her sobbing in the shower when another dolt proves unavailable. It's almost as if those staid public information films from the '50s telling women what to cook and how to behave had been adapted for a hip contemporary audience but that one inviolable truth remained - a woman just has to have her man.