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Cats and Dogs is pleasant for the sensitive at heart

The Truth about Cats and Dogs

Directed by Michael Lehmann.

Written by Audrey Wells.

Starring Uma Thurman, Janeane Garofalo, and Ben Chaplin.

Sony Copley Place.

By Scott C. Deskin
Chairman

In the genre of screwball romantic comedies, competent filmmakers must know how to push the right buttons to evoke an appropriate audience response. A fit of laughter here, a somber moment there - it's all part of a bigger picture over which the writer and director of a film have control. Of course, appealing performances determine whether a film is truly successful, whether the audience can connect with the characters in the story.

The Truth about Cats and Dogs is a film that brims over with appeal and execution. Although this is fine for the actors, whose amiable onscreen presence is a treat to watch, they're often drowning in the sappy plot constructs and the ridiculously "cute" situations: While many audience members at the LSC screening I attended were prone to exclaim "Awwww!" at all the cuteness, I felt an equal desire to groan instead.

In the story, Abby Barnes (Janeane Garofalo) is a successful pet doctor who hosts the talk-radio show that provides the title of the film. Her no-nonsense approach to dispensing her wisdom wins the heart of one of her callers, a British photographer named Brian (Ben Chaplin), who has an accent to die for. When Brian calls and asks her out for drinks, Abby decides to toy with him and fib about here physical appearance: Instead of being a short brunette, she's a tall, vivacious blonde.

Only when Abby's ditzy next-door neighbor Noelle (Uma Thurman) drops by the radio station does Abby's joke get out of hand. Brian mistakes Noelle for Abby; Abby is frustrated by the predicament of missing out on an opportunity for love, now completely squandered because of Brian's obvious physical attraction to Noelle. And Noelle tries to help Abby get her man through a series of ruses even while Noelle ponders a relationship with Brian on the rebound from her "loser" boyfriend. As Brian's infatuation becomes more tenacious, his talks on the phone with the real Abby (culminating in an experience that gives new meaning to the phrase "Reach out and touch someone") lead to an increasing desire to see the whole package in person: Abby's radiant personality in Noelle's body.

From the beginning, we know this "Cyrano de Bergerac" tale-in-reverse must have a happy ending. For one thing, Noelle's presence in the film is noted by some foolhardy, libidinous male in practically every scene. But after the first few times, it gets rather absurd. Second, Abby is not an ugly duckling at all - just short and a bit insecure. As the movie progresses, the audience develops a feeling of identification with Abby, while Noelle (despite her overall kind and generous nature) is little more than a dumb blonde (in the Marilyn Monroe archetypal sense). As Abby, relative screen newcomer Garofalo shows a winning, unforced appeal; Thurman's Noelle is adequate but, as the "babe," her putative intoxicating physical beauty is somehow less than believable. As the love interest, Ben Chaplin (no relation to that other Chaplin, I think) is a star in the making, although with the limited box-office appeal of, say, Uma Thurman.

Director Michael Lehmann (Heathers) really hasn't come up with anything as vibrant or scathing as his debut; he seems unable to do anything here except craft "safe" entertainment. The film is not an unpleasant experience, but it doesn't really rise above genre expectations, either. With that said, The Truth about Cats and Dogs promises a good time for suckers with romantic pretensions about how the world ought to be: a chick flick that wears its emotional sensitivity proudly on its sleeve.