The Truth About Cats & Dogs
films, appearing simultaneously in 1996, tried to tackle the topic of beauty.
One failed abysmally, while the other was among of
the best films of the decade.
failure is a romantic comedy. The Truth
About Cats & Dogs tells a Cyrano
de Bergerac tale: smart and sophisticated Abby (Janeane Garofalo) thinks
she is very plain-looking, so when sweet, hunky Brian (Ben Chaplin) hears her advice
show on the radio and asks her out, she pretends that her voice and personality
actually belong to her pal, conventionally good-looking model Noelle (Uma
Thurman). Then Abby gets paranoically on-guard: she monitors the angelic Brian,
expecting that he will very soon fall for Noelle’s superficial good looks – no
matter how dumb and uncultured she really is.
do not want to get too politically correct about this but, almost as a rule,
any film that dares pit a supposedly beautiful woman against a supposedly plain
one – and sets them fighting over the same supposedly ideal guy – is doomed to
abject failure, on many levels (credibility being the baseline level). This
kind of discussion – physically evaluating or rating a particular actor in a
particular role – will always get us into tricky, inescapable, horribly
revealing knots. One can say, for example, about this film: well, Garofalo is
simply not plain-looking to begin with, and how can any film pretend (actually
even believe) that she is? But the point, really, is not to decide absolutely
who’s good-looking and not on screen – how demeaning is that? We should be
trying to expand the definition, range, experience and perception of human
beauty. Maybe – to take this from a cheerier angle for a moment – movies (sometimes
inadvertently) manage to do that all the time, whether they want to or not,
whether they’re aware of it or not; that’s what Jean Epstein’s notion of photogénie in cinema is all about.
make matters worse in the film at hand, however, we have that dumb-and-uncultured
versus smart-and-sophisticated cultural layering. And it gets even stickier
when the film begins comparing Abby’s “single girl blues” as a modern,
media-savvy but lonely woman with Noelle’s dead-end, abusive, proletarian
relationship. The fact that these Cyrano-esque
antics are rather listlessly staged by a once-promising director, Michael
Lehmann (Heathers, 1988), does not
of the issues in this story need be off-limits. In fact, the script by Audrey
Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun, 2003) is
not naïve: it tries hard to acknowledge the hovering social Beauty Myth and its
critique. Reviewers who respond to the film more warmly than I did have argued
that it doesn’t propagate absolute standards of intelligence or beauty; rather,
it’s about women’s everyday, socially induced anxieties about how they look and
However, The Truth About Cats & Dogs compromises and wimps out on all fronts in this regard: Abby is made to look
less and less plain/pale/haggard/frumpy as the plot unfolds; the romantic
destiny of Noelle (whom the film tries in vain to humanise, as if it actually
cared about her) is fudged; and angelic Brian – the soul of New Age sensitivity
– hardly utters a single reprehensible, male-chauvinist sentiment. He certainly
never utters words like “beautiful” or “ugly” that are germane to the film’s
entire semantic project!
where does Lehmann stand on the question of female beauty? At one point, the
story veers toward a dreaded make-over scene, with Noelle attempting to render
the vulnerable Abby a little prettier. The film gets out of this one much
later, by having a scene where Abby proudly returns all her make-up and
perfumes to the shop where she bought them.
Having said all that, however, this lightweight romantic comedy (a sweet, humanist tale that wishes only to allot happiness and fulfillment to all characters) does have its good points: cute animal jokes, winning work from Garofalo (she is certainly given the funniest lines and bits of business), and a terrific Suzanne Vega song, “Caramel”. Plus, every postmodern intellectual will be heartened by the delightful scene in which Brian reads to Abby from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida as a prelude to some serious phone sex.
© Adrian Martin July 1996