Hollywood used to have a tradition of wiggy-sexy comediennes — motormouth funny ladies, like Myrna Loy or Carole Lombard, who tossed off lines with such whip-smart exuberance that it gave them a special, modern romantic appeal. Janeane Garofalo is a delightful throwback to that tradition. Thus far, she has been best known as a gifted wiseacre (The Larry Sanders Show, Reality Bites). But in the winsome comedy The Truth About Cats and Dogs, she comes into her own as a romantic star. She still has her flirtatious, rather caustic wit, but now, for the first time, we see the yearning behind it.

Garofalo plays Abby Barnes, a woman too neurotically hung up on her ”imperfection” to have any idea how appealing she is. Abby, a veterinarian, hosts a Los Angeles talk-radio show in which she offers smart-aleck advice to beleaguered animal owners. Your pooch has a cold? Your cat won’t stop licking you? Abby comes to the rescue. Pets she understands; it’s those other animals — men — who elude her. Despite her professional success, Abby is haunted by the fact that she’ll never be the kind of woman who can turn heads. The gods have denied her gorgeousness, and in a city like L.A., where specimens of unearthly beauty dot every street corner (and men fall off bicycles to gawk at them), her short-girl ordinariness strikes her as a genetic curse.

Actually, Janeane Garofalo is pretty adorable; her heart-shaped grin is a luscious explosion of dimples and teeth, and her eyes are so big and dark and soulful they practically caress you. Still, she’s not a runway model — she’s pretty in a pie-faced, girl-next-door way — and that makes her ideal for the role of a woman whose lack of attractiveness ultimately lies inside her own head. Abby wears her hair in an unflattering Kathy Bates ‘do, and she’s so aware that other women may make a more stunning first impression that she never gives herself a chance to make a second one. Her real calling card is her teasing sensuality, the very quality she’s too shy to run with.

Then she meets Brian (Ben Chaplin), a tender-souled Brit who calls up her radio show when the Great Dane he’s supposed to be photographing finds its way onto a set of roller skates. Abby solves that problem — she’s not just a pet doctor, she’s a pet psychiatrist — and Ben, smitten, asks her out over the phone. But Abby is scared of blowing it, and so she recruits her neighbor, Noelle (Uma Thurman), to impersonate her. Tall, skinny, and blond, with the face of a Nordic princess, Noelle, a struggling model, is the kind of woman Abby thinks she’d like to be. At the same time, she’s a scatterbrained flake who has to read women’s-magazine columns to figure out that her abusive cad of a boyfriend is a ”loser.” ”Abby” (that is, Noelle) soon has Brian swooning — though he can’t figure out why she’s so much less vibrant in person than she is on the phone, or why her voice sounds so different. Meanwhile, Abby is passing herself off as ”Donna,” Noelle’s best friend, whom Brian finds mysteriously captivating to talk to.

The director, Michael Lehmann, a former specialist in prankish nihilism (Heathers, Hudson Hawk), has developed a new, soft touch that brings out the gentlest undercurrents of romantic comedy. Visually, The Truth About Cats and Dogs is all rich, buttery light — it’s as if everyone were being photographed under a perfect midday sun. The fun of the movie lies in the way Abby and Noelle drive themselves crazy trying to sustain the illusion that Abby’s personality is ”inside” Noelle’s body. Abby suffers the anxiety of not having enough beauty; Noelle, the anxiety of having too much. Their hoax is like a double scoop of neurosis.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs is very funny around the edges (in the talk-radio scenes, Garofalo hits hilarious notes of mock exasperation), but as the characters begin to hang out together, forming a platonic ménage à trois, the mistaken-identity ruse never escalates into true screwball lunacy; it’s more like Cyrano de Bergerac by way of Friends. The reason, I think, is that Brian’s elemental confusion over who the two women are is kept too mild and straight. Ben Chaplin, an English actor new to American movies, has a serenely virile gaze and charisma to spare, yet the picture would have been zestier had he been allowed a bit of Cary Grant befuddlement to match up with the women’s mad-scramble manipulations. You feel that Lehmann has too much affection for the people on screen to let them seem like dupes. Then again, that’s part of the movie’s charm. At one point, Noelle asks Abby, ”Did you ever look into a mirror so long that your face didn’t make sense anymore?” Lehmann lingers so lovingly on the faces of his actors that they finally do make sense. And staring into them, you may catch a glimpse of your own reflection. B+

The Truth About Cats & Dogs
  • Movie
  • 97 minutes