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Are you my Internet date?


In the high season of the blockbuster, when the walls of the megaplexes reverberate with explosions, speeding vehicles careen down the cinematic turnpikes, the pyrotechnicians supplant the writers, and the special effects wizards overwhelm the directors, a small, relatively adult romantic comedy seems a special delight.

Just about the only movie of its kind around, Must Love Dogs fills an obvious gap in the Hollywood summer, like a long, cool drink on a hot day, providing some refreshing moments of lightness and calm amid the turmoil of horror, action, adventure, and Sith.

The movie deals with the familiar matter of its form, the efforts of two perfectly well matched people to find each other despite the obstacles of helpful and concerned family, friends, and pets. Since we now dwell in the 21st century, the main characters in the plot are not the traditional naive youngsters poised on the brink of their first great love, but two people past their first youth who, after the experience of marriage and divorce, now seek new connections and hope for genuine fulfillment. In keeping with contemporary methods of courtship, the two look for love, not in all the usual wrong places, but roam electronically around the trysting spots of cyberspace.

Diane Lane plays Sarah Nolan, a preschool teacher suffering post-divorce depression and loneliness, whose family fears she may spend the rest of her life wallowing in the pain of her broken heart. Her sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) browbeats her into advertising for a suitable companion over the Internet, complete with faked photo, describing herself in the sort of terms familiar to readers of these pages. An alarming assortment of liars and losers, no doubt also familiar to some, respond to her ad --- one so self absorbed he never hears a word she says, another who thought she'd be more in the Lolita range, another who brings along his sullen 14-year-old daughter, and so forth.

When she finally meets the right guy, Jake Anderson (John Cusack), a mutual awkwardness and self-consciousness, combined with his nervous eagerness and intensity, causes the encounter to end somewhat unsatisfactorily. Another prospect turns up, however, in the form of a student's newly separated father (Dermot Mulroney), a handsome charmer with a smoothly understated line of gab, who dazzles her with his easy confidence. In the ancient patterns of comedy, he serves to distract her from the straightforward path toward a successful relationship with Jake.

Aside from the time honored concept that the path of true love cannot run smoothly and that comedy depends upon complications, Must Love Dogs also explores the consequences of Internet dating. Sarah shows up for a lunchtime meeting with a promising prospect only to discover that her date is her widowed father (Christopher Plummer), who follows some common techniques of the personal ad in inflating certain matters and deducting a couple of decades from his age. The encounter, which could teeter on the brink of something darker and deeper, only suggests a new wrinkle on the role of the parent in traditional romantic comedy.

The intelligence and wit of the script supports the formulaic and rather attenuated plot, which of course proceeds along entirely predictable lines. The considerable charm and skill of the cast reflect a genuine respect for the quality of the writing, in terms of both character and dialogue. Diane Lane and John Cusack, experienced, accomplished, and versatile performers, exhibit a pleasantly satisfying connection with the smart, quirky, attractive people they play, appealing to us as well as each other.

In keeping with other comic traditions, the secondary characters provide many of the picture's best lines, best scenes, and greatest delight. Elizabeth Perkins, for example, performs an updated and most entertaining version of the wise and wisecracking sidekick played by actors like Eve Arden and Celeste Holm. The most appealing performer in the picture, however, must be Christopher Plummer, who steals every scene he appears in, capping it off with a wonderful recitation of a lovely Yeats poem at a family gathering.

Even if Must Love Dogs lacked all its other merits, Plummer, along with a great Newfoundland dog named Mother Teresa, provides more than enough charm to make it all worthwhile.

Must Love Dogs (PG-13), written and directed by Gary David Goldberg, is playing at Culver Ridge, Eastview, Greece Ridge, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Plaza, Tinseltown, Webster 12.