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Puppy Love 

If this sugary, derivative romantic comedy becomes a hit, it'll be a sure sign that the dumbing down of America, via the current Hollywood machine, is working perfectly.

The film will certainly do well on its opening weekend; there's a strong cast -- John Cusack, Diane Lane, Christopher Plummer and Elizabeth Perkins among them -- and the only new films it's up against are the lame-looking (from the trailers, at least) Sky High and the seemingly by-the-numbers action-thriller Stealth. There's just not much else out there for an adult audience that isn't looking for Disney or a dose of ear-splitting noise. But by the following weekend, this forgettable piece of fluff should be, well, forgotten.

Right from the start, the darn thing is just too cute. Sarah's (Lane's) husband has walked out on her. Jake's (Cusack's) wife has walked out on him. Both of these nice people thought their marriages were in pretty good shape, but now they're shaken.

As in most movies like this, there are support systems at play. She's got her sisters and a brother (who's having his own marital difficulties); he's got his pal Charlie. Pushy sister Carol (Perkins) wants Sarah to jump right back into things; Charlie (Ben Shenkman) just wants Jake to get back into some women's beds. But writer-director Gary David Goldberg (Dad), adapting from the popular Claire Cook novel, betrays some early difficulty with keeping the film balanced by making Sarah too chirpy and Jake too morose. There's simply no way these opposites are going to get together and make things work.

Oops, I just reread my last sentence and realized that it was about the stupidest thing I've ever written about a film. Note to self: C'mon, dummy, of course they're going to get together! Don't you remember When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail or, leaving poor Meg Ryan alone for a moment, Four Weddings and a Funeral?

And that's the real problem here: We've seen this movie too many times. The bit that gets them together here is a Web site called Perfectmatch.com. Carol makes up an inviting profile about Sarah and posts it, and Charlie sets up a date with Sarah for Jake when he reads it.

That also happens to be where the oh-so-cute title comes from. Whoever wants to send a verbal reply to the Internet service about her "must love dogs." Too bad that the title is so misleading, since there's not much about actually loving dogs in the film. There are two main ones -- the big black Newfoundland featured in the poster, and the little white West Highland Terrier who gets very little screen time. In fact, the dogs don't have much to do with the film aside from giving it its name; they're nothing more than furry little props.

But back to the people and what they do in the film. After back-and-forth visits with the two unhappy protagonists, things finally start to click about a half-hour in, when they meet -- in the park, with borrowed dogs (just in case the title and what it means wasn't clear enough). And the two characters (or maybe it's the two actors) appear relaxed, at ease, comfortable with each other and with the scene. There's promise that a bit of good old screen chemistry is right around the corner. But it's delayed because the plot gets in the way. They like each other, then they don't like each other. No, no, one of them likes the other, but the other one runs away. Then some other guy (Dermot Mulroney) becomes involved, and it's possible, though not very clear, that another woman (Jordana Spiro) gets in the way. But the two main characters spend lots of time pining for each other, unable to figure out what to do. And then, before you realize it, everything starts becoming all about watching the movie Dr. Zhivago and -- in a truly desperate grab for pop culture charm -- about the theme song from The Partridge Family.

Cusack is quite good in his part -- a little pushy but very charming -- and he imbues the role with impeccable comic timing. But Lane has done this role too many times recently (Under the Tuscan Sun), and her Sarah is too pat. There are a few scenes that will elicit both chuckles and full laughs, but there's also dialogue that feels like it came right out of some kind of computer program for screenplays. (Sarah: "He's looking for the whole dance, and I'm just learning the steps.")

These films always end the same way, but getting there can be a chore. If it helps, you can close your eyes and pretend it's Meg Ryan up there instead.

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