(PG-13) 3 StarsEd Johnson-Ott

Must Love Dogs is a romantic comedy that sticks firmly - slavishly, in fact - to the conventions of the genre. What elevates the flick enough to warrant a look-see is its wonderful cast. Diane Lane and John Cusack star, with support from Dermot Mulroney, Elizabeth Perkins, Stockard Channing and Christopher Plummer. Clearly, this group of actors is talented enough to take even a terribly trite screenplay and wring some entertainment out of it.

Even with their gifts, the movie plays only like a slightly better-than-average sitcom. No surprise there: Gary David Goldberg, who directed the film and wrote the script (based on the Claire Cook novel), is the creator and frequent writer of the long-running series Family Ties and Spin City. He fills his screenplay with snappy one-liners that would have nicely fit either show. Again, thank goodness for the able cast, who do their best to remain credible even when the proceedings become excessively glib.

The story - oh hell, you know the story. You should be able to write your own version. In fact, why don't you grab a video camera, gather together a few friends and make your own contemporary romantic comedy? If you're a woman, you can star in it. If you're a guy, you can choose from several roles.

Your cast begins with The Plucky Star, a woman beloved by all those around her, even though her (insert obsessive behavior or easily correctable personality flaw here) sometimes drives people crazy. She could have any man she wants, but she is either gun shy because of the way her last relationship ended or oblivious to things romantic because her work keeps her busy all the time.

Other cast members include The Stud (an incredibly good-looking guy who appears to be Mr. Right but has a dreadful character trait that will reveal itself later), The Real Deal (a less good-looking guy who is endearing but socially awkward, so much so that he fumbles an early encounter) and The Pal (utterly devoted best friend to The Real Deal, crass about sexual matters but a vital liaison when the Big Spat happens).

The Plucky Star is surrounded by intrusive, but well-meaning family and friends, because her life is infinitely more interesting than theirs. The support group includes The Best Friend (tart-tongued and intrusive), The Reactor (pretty and bland, she has a Gilligan/Skipper relationship with The Best Friend) and The Reactor Jr. (she bulks up the group), Miss Sassy (usually older, she has a knockout one-liner for everything, but the humor masks her secret pain), The Harmless Homo (a gay neighbor or co-worker, always ready with a joke or a shoulder to cry on) and The Philosophical Parent (a widow or widower usually, dispensing good humor and sage advice along with wistful anecdotes about the dead spouse). Optional: The Child (precocious as hell, the kid can deliver a deadly one-liner or a much-needed reality check at the darnedest times).

So now what? Tell the cast to stay in character, think of situation comedies and do what comes naturally while The Plucky Star has a clumsy first encounter with The Real Deal and a great one with The Stud. She starts dating The Stud. Over time, she notices that The Real Deal is honest and funny and kinda cute. Unfortunately, there is a terrible-misunderstanding-which-could-easily-be-corrected-if-both-parties-sat-down-and-talked-for-five-minutes and The Plucky Star begins dating The Stud in earnest, only to discover the terrible truth about him. Finally, she races to talk with The Real Deal, but no talk is needed. They simply plunge into each other's arms.

To flesh out your movie, be sure to add some squabbling within the support group, a misunderstanding with The Philosophical Parent, a big meal, several montages set to pop songs and a sing-along or lip-syncing session to a golden oldie. If you included The Child, have it get sick.

Follow this guideline and you'll end up with a contemporary romantic comedy comparable to Must Love Dogs, except for the cast, of course. Once more, thanks and a tip of the hat to a group of actors talented enough to make this drivel watchable, though I wonder what possessed them to sign up in the first place. Maybe they were attracted to the dinner party sing-along of - I swear this is true - the theme song to The Partridge Family.

See? If the filmmakers can stick a sing-along of the theme song to The Partridge Family in a movie and got away with it, surely that proves that anybody can crank out one of these things.


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