The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996)

Directed by Michael Lehmann

When you describe the film, almost all of the elements that make The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996) a thoroughly enjoyable film sound like reasons for not liking it. This isn’t because the elements themselves have anything intrinsically disagreeable about them, it’s just that given the current state of culture they are the sorts of things the anxious-to-be hip eschew.

Cutting to the chase, it’s a nice movie. It’s about nice people. The humour is nice – not cynical, not snide, just nice (and funny). The characters are nice – troubled, with issues, but nice.

And of course, the dog is nice.

If you have any aspirations at all for being cool, you aren’t suppose to like this kind of thing.

But I’m not cool and don’t want to be, so I don’t care. I really liked this movie. It works for a number of reasons.

To begin with, it uses a basic romantic template. The plot is one of the primary romantic comedy ones. As Roger Ebert points out, it’s Cyrano de Bergerac: a woman falls in love with the personality of one man while thinking he is (looks like) someone else. Steve Martin revisited this storyline in 1987’s Roxanne.

The twist here is that the script switches genders. Here, the object of affection is a guy, Brian (Ben Chaplin). He falls for Abby (Janeane Garofalo), a radio talk show veterinarian. Abby, unfortunately, has self esteem issues so she lets Brian believe she is really her neighbour/friend, Noelle (Uma Thurman).

None of this sounds terribly inspiring. However, with great execution, it works like a charm and, yes, the film charms you. I think it gets it’s strengths from two key sources. First, the script by Audrey Wells (writer, director of Under a Tuscan Sun). It’s clever without being too clever. She seems to find the right recipe for a mix of cynicism and sentimentality. While Abby’s character is cynical, it keeps getting her into trouble (much of the source for the film’s comedy). Wells lets the film be sentimental – it’s a requirement for this kind of movie – but she’s never excessive with it. It’s kept in check quite nicely.

Of course, director Michael Lehmann has a hand in all this.

The second source for the film’s success is in the performances, particularly of Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman. Garofalo is perfect as the low self esteem Abby and Thurman portrays the somewhat airheaded but well-intentioned and earnest Noelle flawlessly. And together, the two women make a great comedic team.

Sometimes movies delver exactly what you expect, so there are no surprises. But sometimes they deliver exactly what you expect but surprise and please you by how well they do it.

That’s the case here.

3 stars out of 4.

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