TRUTH and BEAUTY Movie review: A delightful new version of the "Cyrano" story, "The Truth about Cats and Dogs" is everything a romantic comedy ought to be.

April 26, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Somewhere in "Ghostbusters," Dan Aykroyd is trying to convince the mayor of New York that the apocalypse is approaching and he sums up the terrors about to be unleashed, including lightning, tornadoes, earthquakes, fire and brimstone. His partner, Bill Murray, deadpans an addition: "Cats and dogs, living together."

Well, if we get movies as funny as "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" out of it, the apocalypse might be all right.

The movie, which takes as its subject the difficulty of cats and dogs living together, or at least getting together, is as good a romantic comedy as has come this way in a long time. A gloss on "Cyrano de Bergerac," it heads straight to the central romantic dilemma of the human race, which is that when two intelligent, witty, glib, verbal people come face to face with each other and feel a powerful hormonal attraction, each of them immediately acquires the IQ of a rutabaga.

In the case of Abby Barnes -- that is, Dr. Abby Barnes -- the verbal gifts are so highly refined they are professional. A veterinarian, she runs a terrific radio talk show called "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" in which she wittily dispenses advice to the petlorn and the poop-punished. One day she speaks to an especially charming young man, a photographer, and helps him through a professional crisis. He is attracted to her as well and wants to meet her and asks for a description.

"Five-10," she says, "and blond."

Bad career move, great plot move. She's 5-1 and brunet, and, er, not beautiful. In fact, she hasn't had sex in three years.

In further fact, she's Jeanane Garofalo, with piercingly intelligent eyes and the hair of and face of a graduate student in sanitation management. The 5-10, blond and beautiful one, see, that's her neighbor, a ditzy model named Noelle with legs that just don't stop and a face that could launch a thousand ships or in the real world a thousand slips of the tongue. In fact, she's Uma Thurman, that force of nature and complete perfection.

The film, directed by Michael Lehmann, still famous for "Heathers" and infamous for "Hudson Hawk," is at its most effortlessly mechanical as it conspires to get the mirror-image Cyrano-Christian-Roxanne characters together, a lot of it laughably unbelievable, but so earnestly committed are the actors and so casually vibrant is Audrey Wells' script that one watches with sustained glee.

And thus it comes quickly to pass that dumpy Abby is calling herself "Donna," and pretending to be the best friend, while handsome Brian (Benjamin Chaplin) makes goo-goo eyes at dumb bunny Noelle, whom he thinks is Abby, while Noelle is meanwhile being fed lines by the real Abby so that she can stay rTC up with Brian, with whom Abby, by this time, has fallen desperately in love.

As Rostand proved 100 years ago and Steve Martin re-established with "Roxanne," it's a perfect comic situation that generates the cheap laughs of confusion and clever twists of plot, while at the same time plumbing an eternal enigma: How much of it is looks? You fall in love, after all, with a person, not a face, but what do you do if the person you fell in love with turns out not to have that face of perfection, but just a regular one? The ultimate question is: Where dwells beauty, on the outside or on the inside?

Lehmann pushes his cast through a variety of shenanigans, but it's the vividness of the performances that keep the film on track. Garofalo is especially good, in a potentially star-making role, and somehow manages to convey something the movie is about but which is utterly rare in films -- inner beauty. The camera loves her questing eyes and somehow captures the radiance that beams off a technically unbeautiful face. In the end, she's far more an object of appeal than the flawless Thurman -- which is the point, after all.

A woman friend of mine described the movie with a word that a big macho lug such as myself would be uncomfortable using. Nevertheless, even though I cannot force myself to type it without quotation marks, it's the best summation possible. "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" is uck! "adorable."

"The Truth About Cats and Dogs"

Starring Jeanane Garofalo and Uma Thurman

Directed by Michael Lehmann

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

Rated PG-13. (Sexual innuendo)

Sun score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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