Starring Uma Thurman, Janeane Garofalo
"The Truth About Cats & Dogs"

Opens: April 26, 1996 | Rated: PG-13

It's surprising no one thought of it before, modernizing "Cyrano de Bergerac" with female leads.

In 1987 Steve Martin turned "Cyrano," the story of a witty but not-so-handsome man who helps a friend woo the woman they both love, into "Roxanne" by punching up the comedy and slapping on a happy ending.

This week comes "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," starring Janeane Garofalo ("Reality Bites") as a droll but romantic plain-Jane who doesn't quite meet the man of her dreams because she asks her gorgeous best friend (Uma Thurman) to stand in for her a date.

Garofalo is the host of a radio pet care show (thus the title) who pops off at her callers at least as much as she advises them, affording her the opportunity to put her signature on a part that is otherwise a significant departure for her.

She is known best for the biting cynicism of her stand-up comedy and her role as the bitter guest booker on HBO's "The Larry Sander's Show." But in "Cats and Dogs" she nails the essence of how it feels to be lonely and full of doubt.

On her radio show she scolds her callers for treating their pets like people, telling one fellow "repeat after me:," after his cat lick his face so long a rash developed.

She agrees to meet a charming listener with a dog he can't control (British actor Ben Chaplin), but in a moment of self-doubt when he asks what she looks like, she describes her neighbor, Thurman -- a beautiful, playful, somewhat vapid model.

Of course Chaplin likes what he sees when he meets Thurman and they begin to date, but he falls in love during all-night phone calls with Garofalo, thinking they're the same girl.

The three primary characters have all but a dozen lines of dialogue and several scenes take place on the phone, so it's surprising the movie fails to provide the kind of engaging banter that is traditionally the hallmark of a romantic comedy.

Director Michael Lehmann ("Heathers," "Airheads") wastes 10 minutes on a musical vignette of Chaplin taking the girls' pictures in his photography studio. Every cliche romantic shot in the book substitutes for conversation at some point, even the trite lovers-silhouetted-against-the-setting-sun.

"The Truth About Cats and Dogs" at times more closely resembles an AT&T commercial than a movie.

But as much as "Cats and Dogs" looks amateurish and sounds uninspiring, the stars make up for it with solid, honest performances that raise the film almost to the level it should have been anyway.

Chaplin -- probably cast because he's reminiscent of Hugh Grant, but a little more butch -- makes the line "She is beautiful, but that's not why I love her" sound almost like it wasn't inevitable.

With a well-tuned balance of angst-ridden sarcasm and heart-felt romance, Garofalo has created a career-making role for herself, and will likely have a script-stuffed mailbox after this weekend's box office tally.

And Thurman is sublime. Any bottle blonde in Los Angeles County could have been cast in the role of the pretty and feckless friend, but Thurman was an inspired choice. She brings to the character an endearing, almost savant wiseness of the game of love -- the kind of knowledge a girl who has always had men fawning over her would naturally acquire.

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