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To Lie For

Janeane Garofalo makes a little deception go a very long (and very funny) way

The best date movie around right now is The Truth About Cats and Dogs, an extremely clever romantic comedy that strikes just the right balance between the sweetly sentimental and the smartly unconventional. There's a hint of screwball comedy here and there, and a hefty dose of Cyrano de Bergerac everywhere. But that's an observation, not a criticism. There's sufficient wit to the writing, and more than enough charm to the lead performances, to make everything about the enterprise seem newly minted and factory fresh.

The title refers to a radio call-in show hosted by Dr. Abby Barnes (Janeane Garofalo), an animal expert who breezily dispenses advice to concerned pet owners about grooming, diet and other pressing subjects. One afternoon, she gets a call from Brian (Ben Chaplin), a British-born, Santa Monica-based photographer who doesn't know how to calm a very big dog he recruited for a photo shoot. (Little wonder the dog is upset: Brian has placed roller skates on the animal's paws.) Abby is amused, but takes the situation seriously enough to offer Brian detailed instructions. Thanks to her, Brian does indeed manage to soothe the snarling beast. Greatly impressed by her expertise, and more than a little intrigued by her saucy manner, he suggests they meet for a drink.

Unfortunately, Abby has a serious self-esteem problem when it comes to affairs of the heart. So much so, in fact, that she hesitates before responding when Brian asks her to describe herself. Fully convinced that anyone who sounds as dreamy as he would never be interested in anyone as average-looking as she, Abby decides to embellish. A lot.

What does she look like? Oh, blond hair, five foot ten, stunningly beautiful. Just like her new friend and neighbor, Noelle (Uma Thurman), a scatterbrained but sweet-natured model who's striking enough to literally stop traffic. And nothing like Abby herself, who is short, brunette and, well, would you believe pretty? Okay, would you believe she has a great personality?

One thing leads to another, as they always do in this sort of comedy. When Brian pays an unannounced visit to the radio station, Abby presses Noelle into pretending to be her. Brian is impressed. Trouble is, so is Noelle. And the longer Abby insists that they continue their ruse, leading Brian to believe that the woman he hears on the radio and speaks with on the telephone is the blond bombshell, the more likely it appears that Noelle and Brian are the ones who will be happily-ever-aftering.

In synopsis, The Truth About Cats and Dogs may sound like a dozen or so comedies in heavy rotation on American Movie Classics. But director Michael Lehmann (Heathers, but, on the other hand, Hudson Hawk) has a few tricks up his sleeve, thanks to some of the newfangled twists in the old-fashioned screenplay by former DJ Audrey Wells.

This may be the first romantic comedy in Hollywood history to feature an extended sequence devoted to phone sex. (Pillow Talk doesn't count -- Doris Day and Rock Hudson may have been in their respective bathtubs while talking, but their telephone conversation remained totally innocuous.) Mind you, we don't actually see anything naughty here. And even what we hear is muffled by dreamy soundtrack music. But there's little doubt as to what Brian has in mind when, in the middle of an all-night phone conversation, he coaxes Abby into dropping her inhibitions, and her clothes, while continuing to chat. And there is no doubt whatsoever that Abby enjoys the entire escapade. The beaming expression on her face is enough to indicate precisely how much fun she has on her end of the line. The Truth About Cats and Dogs may wind up doing for self-gratification what When Harry Met Sally did for faking orgasms.

And, of course, the delayed punch line comes when Brian blithely assumes that Noelle (who's still pretending to be Abby) will want to do some of the things that he and Abby discussed the night before.

Very much to the movie's benefit, Lehmann and Wells place as much importance on the relationship between Abby and Noelle as they do on the complicated romance between Brian and the two women. Mind you, the filmmakers don't let their leading ladies off the hook when it comes to comeuppance. In the end, Abby and Noelle acknowledge they've played a nasty trick on a basically decent guy. But, then again, they feel just as bad about the possibility that they've wrecked their friendship in the bargain.

It turns out that Noelle has her own self-esteem problems: for all her beauty, she repeatedly winds up with men who abuse her. She can't help feeling attracted to the kind and considerate Brian, particularly since, in addition to his other sterling qualities, he's cute. And she's genuinely touched when Brian -- who naturally thinks she's as brainy as the woman he's spoken with on the telephone -- gives her a book of the letters exchanged by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But she doesn't want to risk losing her best friend -- maybe her only friend -- by chasing after this Mr. Right.

Uma Thurman doesn't always have the lightest of touches when it comes to playing comedy. In Cats and Dogs, however, she gets it all right by not trying so hard. Her Noelle is the sort of well-meaning ninny who says the first thing that pops into her head, especially when she wants to cheer up a downcast friend. Eager to make Abby feel good about herself, she blurts out, "I'd fuck you." Abby, who knows exactly what Noelle means and deeply appreciates the gesture, replies, "Thank you, honey. I know you would."

Here and elsewhere in Cats and Dogs, Janeane Garofalo adds the perfect touch of deadpan drollery to her dry-roasted bons mots. Until now, this talented young actress has been known primarily as a sort of modern-day Eve Arden, wisecracking her way through supporting roles in Reality Bites and Bye, Bye Love. As Abby Barnes, however, she gets the chance to make the leap to lead player, and she makes the most of it.

Garofalo can make crankiness seem comical better than anyone this side of David Letterman. (Noelle: "What's wrong?" Abby: "Nothing that a rooftop and an AK-47 can't take care of!") But she's just as effective, and even more ingratiating, when Abby turns the full force of her saber-toothed sarcasm on herself. Her self-deprecation is the movie's funniest running gag. At the same time, though, it also serves as a trenchant comment on the ways that women, much like men, are brainwashed into accepting conventional notions about what constitutes true beauty.

Notions, it should be noted, that have been established and sustained by -- what else? -- the movies.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
Directed by Michael Lehmann.
Rated PG-13.
97 minutes.

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