Good looks, in theory, shouldn't limit a movie star, but when you see Diane Lane in Must Love Dogs as Sarah, a divorced preschool teacher in her late 30s who is so skittish and insecure about men that she dithers with doubt like the young Mary Tyler Moore crossed with somebody out of an old Woody Allen movie...well, sorry, but I couldn't buy it. It's not simply that Lane is gorgeous; she has the calm direct gaze, the beaming ease of flirtation that so frequently comes with beauty. Self-deprecatory neurosis doesn't jibe with her features. But in the world according to writer-director Gary David Goldberg, everyone, deep down, is a good person, and that goodness is established by one's ability to carry on like a winsomely nerdish loser.
Timid and vulnerable, naked in her desperation, Sarah lunges at every decent man who looks her way, primping in the supermarket aisle, making goo-goo eyes at the recently separated father (Dermot Mulroney) of one of her students. Time and again, however, her amorous instincts are overruled by caution. ''He's looking for the whole dance,'' she says of one of her prospects, ''and I'm just starting to relearn the steps.'' If a line like that is enough to make you cringe, then do yourself a favor and steer clear of Must Love Dogs. The people in this movie don't talk, exactly. They patter, with that hollow cloying rattletrap cleverness common to bad sitcoms at the moment they reveal their ''sincerity.''
Sarah, a saintly sweetheart, is surrounded by relatives who keep telling her to buck up and find a man, and never have I seen an Irish family with quite this many yentas in it. One of her sisters (Elizabeth Perkins) places an ad for her on an Internet dating site, and before long Sarah is subjecting herself to the anxious semi-charade oh, those youthful photos! of digital personal ads. She meets Jake (John Cusack), a guy so sensitive that he carves rowing shells out of wood and weeps during Doctor Zhivago. Cusack, whose overfamiliar arch mannerisms, once the stuff of hipster 'tude, now mesh all too well with the banter of a film like this, is so clearly right for our heroine that Goldberg, a director who thinks in episodes, has to keep coming up with lame new ways to stall their getting together. (A frantic late-night hunt for condoms is a particular low point.) This is a movie of fake conflict, fake heart, even fake doggy love.