The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996)

D: Michael Lehmann
S: Janeane Garofalo, Uma Thurman, Ben Chaplin

Entertaining update of Cyrano De Bergerac has radio veterinarian Janeane Garofalo falling for caller Ben Chaplin but, ashamed of her looks, passing her attractive neighbour Uma Thurman off as herself. Despite its contrivances, the film is remarkably organic, flowing nicely from the characters and from the performances of its likeable leads. Garofalo is sympathetic, smart and funny, though she is nowhere near as unattractive as her character makes herself out to be. Thurman does a nice take on the archetypal dumb blonde model character and Chaplin is believable as the man caught between them. There's also a most entertaining performance from a rollerskating dog (don't ask) which adds to the bonhommie for those disposed to it. It's a classic little love triangle which lends itself to comic plotting, and director Michael Lehmann handles it well.

Lehmann has had a spotty career, running from the pitch black teen satire Heathers and the suburban sci-fi spoof Meet the Applegates to the aimable Airheads. The Truth About Cats and Dogs is arguably his most mainstream film, certainly the one most likely to have a broad appeal, and it tunes in to a certain indie vibe which might keep some of his former admirers on board. It does have genuine thematic concerns with the constrast between exterior and interior (as did Cyrano), played with a sense of the contemporary which works nicely. It is also nicely modernised in terms of the use of modern communications technology. Cyrano's letters are replaced by radio broadcasts and telephone conversations (with with extraordinary phone sex sequence which is jarring in a broad-based comedy, though not inappropriate given the play on aurality and orality which dominates the script). It's a clever conceit which runs the risk of being annoying, but is not. Lehmann proves able to overcome obvious pitfalls and deliver a genuinely enjoyable variant on an old formula.

Garofalo is at the centre of the film, and though her character is a little fuzzier than her fans will like, radiates an authenticity which is affecting. The film raises issues about body image and self-confidence which are pertinent and relevant, and it does not attempt to apportion blame to either males or females. It eventually sorts itself out happily of course, but Garofalo has won our affection throughout and we don't begrudge her the unlikely uplift. Thurman does not become the villain either, and we are pleasingly asked to weigh conflicting emotional responses to her behaviour before coming to our conclusion. She matches this nicely with a combination of niavety and necessity which explains her character in human terms rather than as a mere caricature of the actress/model. Chaplin manages to survive this firepower with a little bit too much gullability perhaps, but nonetheless an understandible character who we enjoy seeing interact with the others.

The film is no masterpiece. It won't change your world or alter your perspective on it, but it fills a corner nicely and attains both laughter and warmth without straining. Take a look on a slow night with some romantic company and it'll keep things cosy.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.