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Must Love Dogs

It’s a frisky romantic comedy with a great title and wonderfully appealing performances from Diane Lane and John Cusack as computer-dating matchups. So it seems churlish to bark that writer-director and Emmy winner Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties, Spin City) has drizzled sitcom contrivances all over it. But he has. Luckily, he has also provided fun dialogue that goes down as easy as John Bailey’s confectionary camerawork. Lane is a dream, funny and touching as Sarah, a preschool teacher still wounded by her divorce. It’s her take-charge sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) who puts Sarah’s profile on, overselling her as “voluptuous” but adding “must love dogs” for a dollop of truth. Sarah practically lives with her brother’s mutt, Mother Theresa.

Cyberanonymity turns her first date into disaster, when Bill (Christopher Plummer) turns up; he’s Sarah’s widowed dad, a better catch for Dolly (Stockard Channing), who hits multiple Web sites to find a man.

Sarah finds Jake (Cusack), a boat builder with his own divorce scars. We know Jake is a good guy because he builds his boats with wood, not plastic. He’s a craftsman. So is Cusack, who has real comic flair and sparks nicely with Lane. Jake has to borrow a dog for his first date with Sarah. His competition is Bob (Dermot Mulroney), a divorced dad with an ass Sarah grades highly. When Bob acts like a jerk, Sarah calls him “stupidhead” — just the term a preschool teacher would use. Even in fluff, the details count.

A word here about Jordana Spiro, who plays the blond bimbo Jake takes to Dr. Zhivago. He relates to the film’s romantic yearning. She thinks it’s just Russians “freezing their asses off.” Not since the young Goldie Hawn has an actress put a funnier, feistier spin on dumb. Keep an eye on Spiro — she’s a winner. She’s also one of the reasons this fluffball sticks with you. Just when you think you have Goldberg figured, he springs fresh surprises.

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