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The Truth About Cats & Dogs

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More than a few people consider comedy an inappropriate vehicle for the subject of dating; tragedy or, at the very least, theater of the absurd is more like it. Yet filmmakers, unlike most singles who have logged countless hours on what can seem like purgatory’s own StairMaster, continue to insist there’s something inherently funny about holding auditions for Mr. Right. (Guess no one in Tinseltown thinks a desperate guy fretting for 90 minutes over the possibility of remaining unwed would be equally amusing.) The Truth About Cats & Dogs and Mr. Wrong, two dating comedies just out on video, show that their impulses can be right — or very, very Mr. Wrong.

It would be difficult to enter such a crowded genre without including at least one or two musty chestnuts about bachelorette behavior, so The Truth About Cats & Dogs can be forgiven its joke about cat ownership as a sure sign of impending spinsterhood. Especially since the movie is otherwise so blissfully fresh. Janeane Garofalo plays veterinarian Abby Barnes, host of a radio talk show addressing ”stinky cat problems” and other pet woes. One day she fields a call from a photographer (Ben Chaplin) who has your typical angry-dog-on-skates dilemma. He is charmed by the sage advice and pursues a meeting. But Dr. Barnes is so self-conscious about her looks she quickly thrusts her shallow-but-gorgeous neighbor (a wonderfully effervescent Uma Thurman) in his way. Reverse-gender Cyrano de Bergerac complications surrounding identity and, naturally, self-esteem ensue.

But wait a minute. In what known galaxy is Janeane Garofalo not pretty? Duh — in Hollywood, where the standard is set by the ethereal likes of Thurman. Perilous though this fib might seem to the movie’s integrity, however, it is gracefully tempered by Garofalo’s complete embodiment of her role, which is to say the persona of every woman who has ever doubted herself. And although the premise is facile — friendship is golden and inner beauty will always shine forth, blah, blah — everything, including the gags, projects the same delightfully light touch. The movie is so wittily observant about the little truths (pretty women can make men stupid; the moments after first intimacies can be fatally awkward) that we let it do anything it wants with those big ones. It is the ideal tape to watch in preparation of the big date, with trenchant lessons for both sides.

At the far end of the light-touch spectrum — moving from, say, gentle caress to sucker punch — is the visit to dating hell shown in Mr. Wrong. In her first movie role, sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres plays Martha, generic lonelyheart: 31, has a nice pad, pals, great job, but no boyfriend. One night in the local suds hall, she meets Whitman Crawford (Independence Day‘s Bill Pullman), who is good-looking, wealthy, and writes poetry. I mean, what more could a girl hope for?

Actually, a sense of comedy that doesn’t insult the intelligence of a railroad tie would be nice. Within minutes the flick has hinted at its crassness: The bar jukebox is playing Chris Isaak’s insipid version of ”I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” instead of Hank Williams’ original, and the unavoidable Joan Plowright — whose grasp of nuance does not include the ability to vary her roles — plays Crawford’s unpleasant mom. But when the inevitable occurs and Crawford turns into a psychopathic cretin, what was merely icky becomes cruel. As if defying you to smile while your mouth opens in sheer stupefaction, the movie has him issuing racial insults, assaulting a street person, and engaging in stunts too puerile even for juvenile delinquents to enjoy. The script (by Chris Matheson, Kerry Ehrin, and Craig Munson) oozes a barely muffled rage that is less humorous than it is horrifying, and all the amiable DeGeneres can do is wait it out. Home viewers, on the other hand, will likely not have her patience. This is the tape to avoid watching with someone you like — its sourness might curdle an otherwise good thing.

Visiting the video store is itself a lot like prospecting for dates, as both these movies attest. You’re looking for a good one to invite home; you pray the evening won’t turn out to be a dog. That’s why tonight you should choose the dog (and his friend). Considering the other option, he is definitely Mr. Right. The Truth About Cats & Dogs: B+ Mr. Wrong: D-