Truth about Cats and Dogs, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Since Edmond Rostand first committed the play to paper in 1897, Cyrano De Bergerac has become a reliable romantic formula. From the various "straight" versions to Steve Martin's Roxanne, and now The Truth About Cats and Dogs, the concept of a smart-but-plain person wooing their true love through a dumb, attractive intermediary has appealed to movie makers and audiences alike. And, with a standout performance by Janeane Garofalo, this loose reworking makes for solid, if feather-light, entertainment.

It's hard to say enough about how good Garofalo is in this, her first major movie part. In previous outings like Reality Bites and Bye Bye Love, where she had supporting roles, she stole scenes; here, she walks away with the entire picture. Possessing the rare star quality and natural charisma of performers like Sandra Bullock, Marisa Tomei, and Natalie Portman, Garofalo not only "eats up the lens", but also displays a fair amount of acting ability. She's effective in dramatic moments, and her comic timing is perfect. Although she gets second billing (after co-star Uma Thurman), this is her film, and it's likely to bring a number of offers for future work.

The story, which starts out as upbeat variation of Cyrano before moving in another direction, introduces Garofalo as radio pet doctor Abby Barnes. Her show, "The Truth About Cats and Dogs", has made her a household voice, but, as is often true for radio personalities, her face is less familiar. One day, a British-accented photographer named Brian (Ben Chaplin) calls up with a problem: he has an angry dog on roller skates ruining his studio. Abby talks him through the process of pacifying the dog, and, in gratitude, Brian invites her out for a drink. She accepts, but, afflicted with low self-esteem, lies about her appearance. Although Abby is a 5' 1" brunette, she tells Brian to look for someone 5' 10", blond, and "hard to miss" -- an exact description of her airhead actress/model neighbor, Noelle (Uma Thurman).

When Abby explains her deception to Noelle, the statuesque beauty agrees to help, but it doesn't take long for things to get out of hand. Inevitably, Noelle becomes attracted to Brian, and the two women vie for his attention -- Noelle using her body and Abby, her voice. Brian doesn't realize that the face of his dreams isn't that of the woman with whom he has a seven hour telephone conversation that culminates in phone sex.

Buying into the premise of The Truth About Cats and Dogs -- that any man could mistake a ditz like Noelle for Abby -- requires a huge suspension of disbelief, but, once you get past that stumbling block, the film is disarmingly charming, and even offers a few flashes of substance. Nothing in the screenplay is groundbreaking, but there are some observations about low self-confidence. Brian gets tongue-tied around women. Abby is unsure of herself because she thinks she's ugly (although, in an ironic twist, Garofalo consistently looks more attractive than the "gorgeous" Thurman). And Noelle has self-esteem problems because she believes herself to be stupid.

The requisite chemistry between Chaplin and Garofalo is present, and the story follows an unthreateningly predictable route. Director Michael Lehmann keeps both pacing and tone on track. There aren't many surprises, but the script is written with a degree of wit, and there are some bitingly funny one-liners (all of which are delivered by Garofalo). As a romantic comedy, The Truth About Cats and Dogs offers exactly what fans of the genre appreciate -- lighthearted fun. And, for Janeane Garofalo, this should be the launching pad for a promising career.

Truth about Cats and Dogs, The (United States, 1996)

Director: Michael Lehmann
Cast: Janeane Garofalo, Uma Thurman, Ben Chaplin
Screenplay: Audrey Wells
Cinematography: Robert Brinkmann
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 1996-04-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1