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Harmless'Dogs' is just too cute

When a man is dumb enough to neglect or divorce Diane Lane in a movie, the upside tends to be: more for us.

Who else in Hollywood is as believably self-doubting? A Lane picture nowadays involves her rediscovery of what we already know to be true -- that her earthly radiance has no peer. While that can be an invigorating experience, she can't entirely make ''Must Love Dogs" as pleasurable to watch as she is.

The movie is harmless and crowd-pleasing, and sometimes uproariously accurate about the debilitating self-consciousness of being newly single. But while Lane is her typical winning self, the film is mawkish. The more we're cajoled to root for Sarah Nolan, the divorced preschool teacher she plays, the more ''Must Love Dogs" stops resembling a movie and starts feeling like a greeting card.

The story gets going after Sarah's shameless sister Carol -- played by Elizabeth Perkins, a sharp actress who deserves bigger parts -- creates an online personals ad in Sarah's name. It bills her as voluptuous, features her high-school graduation photo, and insists that any man who responds must love dogs.

Across town, Jake Anderson, another divorce (John Cusack), has also had his profile thrown online by a friend (Ben Shenkman). Jake likes to sit at home and wallow in idealism, preferably under a blanket watching ''Doctor Zhivago," his apotheosis of romance. For once in a movie like this, the Meg Ryan part is played by a man.

In the film's best scene, Jake and Sarah meet in a dog park. The pets are borrowed. Hers is Mother Teresa, a big Newfoundland that belongs to her brother. His is a little West Highland white terrier that belongs to his buddy; it's good at playing dead. Jake accidentally insults Sarah, asking why she called herself voluptuous, when the term is typically deployed as a euphemism for fat. She bristles and insults him back.

The encounter has a charming awkwardness: Two wary strangers try to disarm each other in public, while puzzling over the absurdities of online dating. And Lane and Cusack, who's in rare witty form, establish a crackling connection that ought to whisk them into a smarter romantic comedy, but I'm probably getting ahead of myself.

Delaying the inevitable between Sarah and John, there's a side plot in which Sarah goes out with the father (Dermot Mulroney) of one of her students. There's also another story line in which her own debonair father (Christopher Plummer), a widower, builds himself a harem of middle-age prospects.

The most garish of them, Dolly (Stockard Channing), lives in a trailer, has taste in Southwestern accessories that runs toward the trashy, and treats online dating as though it were a role-playing game.

Sarah actually heeds the advice Dolly gives her about the joys of false advertising. Yet watching Lane superimpose her face onto a fly-fisher's, or dress in a dozen uncharacterisic styles on dates (oy, that perm!), is more sad than funny. It feels like a betrayal of what is so appealingly practical and intelligent both about the character and the star playing her. Chaka Khan was every woman. Diane Lane is not.

TV veteran Gary David Goldberg directs ''Must Love Dogs," which is adapted from a Claire Cook bestseller, and he rarely passes up an opportunity to ladle on cuteness. The audience I saw the movie with went ''aww" at all the right moments, such as when Mother Teresa rolls over to cuddle with Sarah one night in bed. The movie is part sitcom and part television dramedy. And Goldberg doesn't apologize for relying on the artificial buoyancy of either. He gleefully slaps on a Nolan family sing-along to the ''Partridge Family" theme, for good measure. ''C'mon get happy!" has rarely sounded more like a threat.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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