Sometimes it's obvious that a project was intended as a "date movie" from the moment a screenwriter typed the first words of dialogue. Such a picture is "Must Love Dogs," which takes its very title from a personal website ad.
The heroine is Sarah, downhearted ever since her husband dumped her for a younger woman. Her sisters can't wait for her to start dating again - for them it's vicarious fun - and one of them registers Sarah's personality profile on a "perfect match" operation for lonely Internet surfers.
She gets plenty of responses, partly because her photo (a graduation-day shot) is about 20 years younger than she is. While most of the men she meets are anything but appealing, she goes from being completely unattached to dating two guys at the same time.
One is an artistic type who makes handcrafted boats so gorgeously old-fashioned that nobody wants to buy one. The other is the father of a child in Sarah's preschool class. At once a handsome intellectual and a hunky athlete, he makes her a tad suspicious even as he charms her half crazy.
The problem with "Must Love Dogs" is that writer-director Gary David Goldberg films every character so slickly and sentimentally that you get the impression he wants you to date a few of them. Virtually every person in the story is fabulously cute, picturesquely forlorn, adorably ditzy, or winsomely philosophical.
In short, there's plenty of smooth storytelling but not a hint of reality here. If people sent postcards of their blind dates, this movie is what they'd look like.
The cast wrestles bravely with the cardboard-thin characters they're asked to play, and some of them almost win: versatile Diane Lane as the heroine, likable John Cusack as the boat builder, dignified Christopher Plummer as an aging dad with a dating game of his own, and offbeat Stockard Channing as a woman caught in the old guy's web.
They can't salvage the slow-moving material, though. And despite the movie's title, there are hardly any photogenic pooches to take up the slack.
"Must Love Dogs" isn't quite a dog, but it's far from an ideal date movie.
• Rated PG-13; contains vulgar language and sexual dialogue.