The Truth About Cats & Dogs

(Michael Lehmann, USA, 1996)


Two 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.


The 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.


I 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.


To 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 help matters.


None 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 talk.


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!


And 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.


MORE Lehmann: Airheads, Meet the Applegates

© Adrian Martin July 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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