Hey! Summer Stinks, But Diane Saves Dogs

Up to here with aliens, action-comic heroes, chocolate factories and pimps who want to be rap stars, I guess the main thing I find missing from the worst summer of movies I can remember is a good old-fashioned love story. And so I bid welcome to Must Love Dogs, a romantic Hollywood scrapbook that chronicles the rituals of contemporary broken-hearted thirtysomethings in dating hell. It’s not When Harry Met Sally … , but it aims to charm, it’s hip and funny, it’s about a million miles in the opposite direction from nauseating reality TV, and it’s got the rapturous Diane Lane. I don’t know about you, but I am ready for all of the above. Especially Diane Lane, who always manages to find the pulse in all of her films, even when there is none.

Mae West always used to say, among other things, “I never loved another person the way I loved myself.” Sound advice from a wise old trout, if you ask me, but lovesick divorcée Sarah Nolan, the pre-school teacher played by Ms. Lane in Must Love Dogs, didn’t follow it. Dumped by a cheating husband for a younger girl who got instantly pregnant, Sarah has been single for eight months and, frankly, she’s tired of lonely dinners, eating microwaved Lean Cuisines while standing over the kitchen sink, and empty nights in a double bed. Worse still, all of her married siblings are so concerned about her single status that they stage an intervention, supplying her with dating tips from Sports Illustrated. Desperate, she turns to the Internet, timidly perusing the personal ads, and finally answers the most interesting one. When she shows up for her first date, it turns out to be her own 71-year-old father (Christopher Plummer). Humiliated, Sarah is ready to give up and buy a cat when her sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins, dispensing sage advice and contributing wisecracks in the kind of role usually played by Bonnie Hunt) takes over the computer, pretends to be Sarah and gets 18 instant responses to her requirement “Must love dogs.” Checking them out one by one, Sarah encounters arm wrestlers, manic-depressives, and cradle robbers, but they all treat her like Elsa Lanchester dressed as the Bride of Frankenstein. Despite its charm, Must Love Dogs has many problems and poses a number of unanswerable questions, not the least of which is: What kind of dope would find Diane Lane too old for love? I can’t imagine what this movie would be like without her; her presence successfully camouflages every flaw.

As Noah used to point out, everything is boarding that Ark two by two, babe. Even Sarah’s oversexed dad finds a new girlfriend—a vulgar, bosomy, teased-haired, often-married slob named Dolly (Stockard Channing). “Somewhere there’s a someone,” sang Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. For Sarah, there are two. The sexy guy she likes best is Bob (Dermot Mulroney), the recently separated father of one of her preschool pupils. Bob is smart and sexy, a part-time construction hard-hat and an American history buff who is writing a biography of Gen. Robert E. Lee. But Bob isn’t really divorced yet, and he shows signs of a roving eye. “He has a Ph.D. and a great ass, so let’s not get ethical,” snaps sister Carol. But the one who really falls for Sarah with the loudest thud is Jake (John Cusack), a racing-boat builder who gets off to a rocky head start on their first date by showing up with a borrowed dog. Meanwhile, Dolly faces her own dilemma with Sarah’s rakish dad, who invites two other tomatoes to Thanksgiving dinner so Dolly can check out her competition. Frustrated, and too old to start fresh, Dolly turns to her own laptop for salvation, but when the hot dude she comes up with arrives in the driveway, he turns out to be 15 years old! Nothing works anymore for horny singles, including Web sites, supermarket delis or the patio-repair department at Home Depot.

How Mr. Right almost always turns out to be Mr. Wrong Turn is what gives Must Love Dogs its raison d’être. Nothing very original there. And there are other problems. The settings are vague. The novel on which it is based was set in Boston, but the neighborhoods look like New Jersey, and the romantic backdrop for the lovers’ drive along the sea is unmistakably the Pacific Coast Highway between Malibu and Santa Barbara. I also found the time frames confusing. One minute it’s Halloween, then in a flip of a frame it’s time to carve the Thanksgiving turkey, then the trees are aglow with apple blossoms and winter never arrives at all. This movie is as seasonally delusional as an American Airlines travel brochure.

Gary David Goldberg’s screenplay and direction have the sound and feel of a television series, and the first-rate ensemble is not often challenged in the right ways. Christopher Plummer is clearly slumming. Stockard Channing is seriously miscast as Dolly, a vulgar totem covered with bling-bling inspired by Sharon Gless on Queer as Folk but never coming anywhere close to Ms. Gless’ sense of down-home humanity. John Cusack’s overwhelming lack of cinematic charisma makes him an alarming choice to play an irresistible babe magnet. He’s about as sexy as navel lint, especially with Dermot Mulroney on the same screen. All of which pretty much leaves Diane Lane to carry the focus. She does it calmly, warmly, erotically, bemusedly and memorably. Finding humor when none is there, revealing insights in the simplest lines of sitcom dialogue, changing her look and her hairstyle for each new man on her dating chart, her versatility matches her beauty. A resourceful actress of range and dimension to whom the camera always wants to make love, she never fails to seize and hold attention, and she elevates Must Love Dogs to the unexpected status of the summer’s most delightful comedy surprise.

No Man Is …

Sane people everywhere are probably as sick of reading about The Island as I am, but it’s too big, noisy, expensive and dopey to ignore, so I guess I am duty-bound to grit my teeth and say a few words. I promise not to keep you long. How much can you say about clones in love?

Michael Bay is one of those directors in arrested development who never outgrew comic books about wars and robots and violence, and now devotes his career to making movies that cost more than the combined yearly income of everybody in South America. He thinks like a Raggedy Andy doll and spends money like the U.S. Congress. The result is a lot of bloated junk marketed for a target audience of people with big allowances and low I.Q.’s who thrive on killing, destroying, maiming, blowing up the environment and smashing things. The Island is not as mind-crushingly stupid as Armageddon or as unintentionally hilarious as Pearl Harbor, but it’s cut from a bolt of the same threadbare mentality.

The year is 2019. The setting is a hermetically sealed environment inhabited by the carefully monitored survivors of the end of the world. (It’s been wiped out by “the contamination.”) The philosophy here is “A healthy person is a happy person.” Everything is so sterile and trouble-free that if you raise the slightest objection, you are taken into custody by the control police for emotional instability. In an antiseptic Alphaville where the big entertainment is group readings of Dick and Jane books, it’s no wonder everyone dreams about the weekly lottery that allows the winners to travel to “the island,” a travel-poster heaven of sandy beaches, blue skies, tropical palms and fresh air described as “nature’s last free zone.”

Ewan McGregor is Lincoln Six Echo and Scarlett Johansson is Jordan Two Delta. They’re inquisitive troublemakers who want bacon for breakfast instead of tofu and turnip fluff. Asking questions and breaking rules, they discover that peace and tranquility are a nightmare, that the lottery is a gimmick by which the citizens of Fruit Loop Fantasy Land are hauled off to have their organs removed, and that departure for “the island” really means you’ve been selected for disposal. Worst of all, they aren’t even people: They’re clones, harvested from cells as organ donors for high-paying clients outside the walls who are dying of cancer or narcissistic enough to crave duplication.

Welcome to the future and what I can only describe as biochemical Nazism. Subtlety is not Mr. Bay’s forte, and the parallels between the America of the future and the Rhineland of the past are so obvious they will make you wince. The evil scientists who run the experiment lab, a $120 billion industry sponsored by a futuristic right-wing conservative government, look like Hitler’s archfiend, Dr. Mengele. Before the innocent clones are sent to “the island,” they are herded into an elevator and gassed while they scream and claw the walls like camp inmates at Auschwitz. The human fertility cells they are growing are being used to create a new “master race” so that people can live forever. There is even a kind of brutal Gestapo, trained to track down escapees, headed by Djimon Hounsou, that gentle giant from In America. Fret not—he has a change of heart. Before this thing ends, you’ll need a change of underwear.

The first half of this long and endlessly plodding saga is about the clones trying to escape. The second half is about what happens when Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta fall in love and find themselves in a Los Angeles after all the movie stars have followed Tom Cruise to the madhouse and the movie business has been killed off by films like The Island. Since Michael Bay never knows when enough is enough, every chase is restaged over and again and the narrative matrix is as simplistic as it is repetitive. The movie has nothing to do with acting, but even for someone hired for his sleepwalking talent, Mr. McGregor is the first manufactured Tinker Toy movie star I have ever seen with green teeth, zits all over his skin, and a wart in the middle of his forehead that has nothing to do with makeup. With salaries the size of Afghanistan, can’t these people afford dermatologists? Lovely Scarlett Johansson is in it for the money. And Steve Buscemi is hardly in it at all. In all fairness, a few things deserve praise, especially the film’s arty scenic design, which is more reminiscent of THX-1138 than most sci-fi fantasies. The sets are an interior decorator’s minimalistic wet dream: stainless steel walls in white Matisse rooms accessorized with one bowl of bright green apples. And, admittedly, some of the money-wasting special effects are undeniably impressive. Best action sequence: a spectacular chase in which the clone lovers sail down the highway in the back of a truck carrying train wheels that fall off and demolish every oncoming vehicle in a wall of crunching metal and glass. I won’t bore you with details about the wreckage of skyscrapers, helicopters and freeways. Same old, same old. Curiously, for test-tube babies only three years out of the jar who have never seen a movie, Mr. McGregor and Ms. Johansson know an awful lot about urban warfare with an arsenal of state-of-the-art weapons. By the time they discover sex, you’ll know an awful lot about snoring.

The Pearl

For something refreshingly different, check out Oyster Farmer, a pleasing slice of Australian life written and helmed by Anna Reeves, a stunning new director making a warm and insightful feature debut. Set in the rarely explored oyster-farming communities of New South Wales, this intimate character study is about Jack Flange (played by appealing Aussie newcomer Alex O’Lachlan), a fetching young man who has recently moved from the city to be near his sister Nikki (Claudia Harrison), who is in the hospital following an automobile accident. While working a backbreaking job at an oyster farm, Jack foolishly steals a huge sum of money from a fish market, thinking this is the only way to help his sister out financially. Even more naïvely, he mails the cash to himself and waits, but it never arrives. Growing fearful that the jig is up and that the police will be showing up on his doorstep at any moment, he also drives himself frantic wondering whether his neighbors may have intercepted the loot. He is especially suspicious of the bewitching Pearl (Diana Glenn), whose expensive tastes do not go unnoticed in the country community.

The character development, as natural and satisfying as oxygen, combines with the relationships of an unusual band of total originals—especially the sleepy-eyed charisma of young Mr. O’Lachlan, captured in loving close-ups—and the spectacular natural vistas of the Hawkesbury River, filmed with relish in graceful traveling shots, to imbue this film with a winning spirit and a broth of eccentricity that warms the cockles. Peppered with surreal humor and underpinned by scenes that establish the unique atmosphere of a place you’ll never see in postcards (dogs in a swimming contest—unforgettable!), the striking sense of authenticity that Ms. Reeves communicates rings startlingly true. The seriously funny script makes the most of the vividly vulgar parochial lingo, and the flock of rough-and-weathered seafaring oyster farmers in the ensemble cast is odd and colorful enough to keep you richly entertained.

The Oyster Farmer does for Australia what The Quiet Man did for Ireland. As an uplifting, enriching series of tableaux of village life in a remote part of the world that few of us will ever experience firsthand, it is never overplayed, but rather beautifully executed by director and cast alike—a quirky, mesmerizing entertainment.

Bergman Lite

The self-anointed French intellectual François (Swimming Pool) Ozon’s latest film, 5 x 2, is the young director’s version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, inspired by Jane Campion’s TV movie Two Friends, and told backwards in the style of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. The result is a real mess, structurally and dramatically. Stripping away the extraneous details that etch great screen characters in our minds forever, Mr. Ozon pinpoints key moments in the life of a pair of married Parisians that leave the viewer paralyzed with boredom and confusion.

Gilles and Marion are ordinary, colorless, familiar and, in the director’s own words, “much like us.” I couldn’t disagree more. First meeting, marriage, childbirth and so on—all told in reverse—exude a teeth-grinding pretentiousness that makes my skin crawl. Bergman, Chabrol and Antonioni all did a better job of depicting the commonplace with more compassion and originality. Dissecting behavior with the skill of a sociologist rarely translates into riveting filmmaking. 5 x 2, alas, is another example of cold, dispassionate cinematic impressionism, made with attitude instead of artistry. Hey! Summer Stinks, But Diane Saves Dogs