No heavy petting

... but a little discreet phone sex instead. Adam Mars-Jones on a likeable 'Cyrano de Bergerac' with genders reversed. Fine, but which is the ugly one?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A million years ago, in the 1960s, there was no more risque frisson in romantic comedy than seeing Rock Hudson and Doris Day taking a bath in split screen, so that for a moment you could imagine they were wallowing in the same suds. The hero and heroine of The Truth About Cats and Dogs have a split-screen bath at one point, and of course by contemporary standards that's nothing. But the scene does move towards some kind of genre milestone. Abby (Janeane Garofalo) and Brian (Ben Chaplin) are talking on the phone, getting on like a house on fire. She's played him her violin (she's good) and he's read her a favourite bit of Roland Barthes. He's English, by the way. Lovely speaking voice.

The only thing is, he thinks he's talking to her tall blonde friend, Noelle (Uma Thurman). They're on the phone for hours, they've made tuna sandwiches together and, finally ... they make their own entertainment. The music is jazzily jaunty, and the thrashing about is highly discreet, but basically this is phone sex, presented as the most romantic thing in the world.

What it comes down to is that The Truth About Cats and Dogs is a version of Cyrano de Bergerac with the genders reversed. Abby doesn't have a nose like a bassoon, but the problems of being short and dark are felt by screenwriter Audrey Wells to be similar disqualifications in a modern woman. Never mind that Uma Thurman's good looks aren't particularly conventional, and that some men don't like women to be taller than they are.

Still, that's the premise of the movie and the cast more or less sell it to us. When Abby and Noelle are newly friends, Abby identifies the problem by saying: "You puke, and men line up to hold your hair back" - a cute line, backed up with some cute stunt work. At that very moment a cyclist, seeing Noelle, does a double take and nearly ends up under a car. His mishap is done without a cut. The director, Michael Lehmann, understands how much this intensifies the moment.

Cyrano was a warrior and a poet, Abby is the resident pet therapist of a Los Angeles radio station. Garofalo has a background in stand-up comedy, and she has the condensed presence which results from that apprenticeship. She has the knack of seeming to address everyone in particular. It helps that the pet problems phoned in to her show are well imagined, and that her advice is highly quirky. She's not above projecting her own problems on to what she's asked on the air. She's asked about pets on social occasions, too, and sometimes has to solve strange little problems. Some audience members will stay to the end of the credits, hoping to be reassured that no tortoise was goosed in the making of this movie.

The irony of the original Cyrano was that he was a hero to his people who couldn't achieve private happiness. Abby isn't quite in that class of almost having it all, though she does have a rather nice cat. The plot of the film develops in a distinctly dithery way, with the women alternately trying and failing to dispel the misunderstanding on which the story depends. You didn't tell him? How could you not tell him? I'll tell him. I couldn't tell him. You didn't tell him. There's an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the way to the happy ending.

It's easy to account for this stop-go motion. The screenwriter was going great guns with the gender transposition of Cyrano until she realised that the handsome idiot for whom Cyrano writes letters, to the woman they both love, logically translates into an airhead. A bimbo. An IQ-negative babe. As if this were a species under-represented on the big screen. What to do?

In practice, make Noelle a demi-bimbo. Sure, keep some good dumb lines, like her wanting to be a TV newsreader, because otherwise she's always the last to know what's going on. And have her not realise that her abusive boyfriend is a loser until she reads an article in a glossy magazine on how to spot losers. But make her intuitive about feelings, intelligent in a non-brainy way. Make her value Abby more than Abby values herself.

The resulting paeans to female friendship necessarily inhibit the development of the central situation. It's supposed to be Abby seeing the death of her impossible hopes, but Noelle keeps climbing on to the martyrdom bandwagon, renouncing any claim on the delightful Brian. She's cast against type as the romantic underdog, but it begins to look like it might be fun. Even when there is conflict between the women, the screenwriter tries to hold on to a sense of their dignity. The result is some uneasy half- joky dialogue, like "I refuse to degenerate into a misogynist cliche. Having said that, how could you do it?"

Finally, Abby and Noelle go over to Brian's with a bottle of tequila each, planning to get drunk and resolve the situation somehow. Brian's a photographer and starts snapping Abby. Noelle, who's a model, is cool about this until Abby starts to relax, even to pose a bit, and there's a risk that the pictures might turn out rather good. That's just too much for Noelle. It's a nice touch that winning Brian, when it's her turn to pose and preen, is more of a matter of professional pride than anything else.

The director does most of this long scene without direct sound, throwing a lot of emphasis on the various body languages of flirt- ation, rapport and competitiveness. This would be more daring if he wasn't so lavish with the mood music, changing tempo and style on us every couple of minutes. The final selection on the juke box of ingratiation is Aaron Neville singing "I Can't Imagine", his throbbing vibrato speaking at last for Abby's disappointed heart.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs is a much more likeable piece of product than a recent romantic comedy like While You Were Sleeping. It's just that it would be nice if someone called old Cyrano's bluff, by asking why it is, if the beauty thing is so iniquitous, that he makes such conventional choices himself. Oh sure, he falls in love with the inner person, but the inner person always has the right age and size and shape. Abby gets to ask Brian if he's ever grown to love someone to whom he wasn't initially attracted, but it's not an experiment she's making herself. Maybe Cyrano would look down his nose at a woman with ears above average size.

n On general release from Friday