Janeane Garofalo says she can’t bear to look at herself on a movie screen. She’s the only one who can’t. Whip-smart, insecure, and good-hearted — and also beautiful, no matter what she says — Garofalo is accessible to anyone in the audience (except maybe herself). She turns a common modern malady, the pain of self-consciousness, into ironic comedy; she’s like Woody Allen, only saner and more soulful. The Truth About Cats and Dogs is the hot date movie of the spring, and Garofalo can take a bow for that. As Abby Barnes, a talk-radio veterinarian who gives advice to the owners of neurotic pets, Garofalo transcends the mechanics of the script (by Audrey Wells) and creates a fully alive woman who first dismisses, and then is tickled by, the idea that she could be desirable. But Abby is desirable, and the deep pleasure of the movie is in watching her realize that.
The plot is gimmicky and blatantly Cyrano-ish. (After this and Il Postino, can we declare a moratorium on Cyrano?) Brian (Ben Chaplin), a photographer who’s just acquired a big, friendly dog, falls in love with Abby’s voice and wit on the radio. He calls and asks to meet her. Panicking, Abby describes herself as a supermodel type and then persuades her neighbor Noelle (Uma Thurman), herself a model, to pose as “Abby.” Much predictable confusion follows. Brian falls in love with Noelle’s beauty and Abby’s mind; both women fall in love with his kindness, and there are two wonderful, understated scenes in which Brian, without touching either of them sexually, satisfies their physical craving. He and Abby have a phone marathon that turns into blissful phone sex, and then he encourages the borderline anorexic Noelle to pig out on dessert (this moment is far sexier than a similar scene in 9 1/2 Weeks). Yet Brian can’t quite reconcile Noelle’s vague manner and general lack of eroticism with Abby’s wit and quietly sensual allure. In short, he’s a dummy, but the British Chaplin (no relation) plays him appealingly and sensibly. Director Michael Lehmann shows a gentle touch with actors that he’s never had before — certainly not in the overrated Heathers. Lehmann doesn’t push the sitcom plot twists or anything else.
Cats and Dogs isn’t all Garofalo’s show. In a way, Uma Thurman has the harder role. The audience is already primed to root for Abby; how do you make us empathize with Abby’s goddessy rival? But Thurman does it. She gives us a touching portrait of an essentially lonely woman starved for kindness. When you first see the movie’s title, you assume Noelle is the sexy cat and Abby the friendly, scruffy dog. But then they switch places: Noelle, it turns out, is more doglike, desperate for true affection (instead of empty adoration of her looks), while Abby becomes a cat, purring in contentment, no longer needing reassurance. Dogs are eager to please; cats don’t worry about being themselves.