CHICK MOVIES - to use the technical genre term current among a number of distinguished female critics - have been making such a dismal showing of late that The Truth About Cats and Dogs (15) seems almost incredibly bright and funny. Viewed with a cool eye, it's a long way from flawless (the plot is at best unlikely, and there are not enough quadrupeds), but it's much better written than Moonlight and Valentino, stronger on female bonding than Now and Then and a good few frissons more seductive than Up Close and Personal. Above all, it has the courage to be a romantic comedy about people who are clever enough to read hard books. This must surely be the first Hollywood production in which the guy woos the girl with extracts from Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, in the course of the dreamiest, if not the longest, bout of on-screen telephone sex. (The latter superlative belongs to Julia Has Two Lovers.)

Other references to highbrow French Lit keep popping up throughout Audrey Wells's charming and nicely paced script, presumably by way of acknowledging her fundamental debt to Cyrano de Bergerac. Her feminine Cyrano figure is a radio vet called Abby (Janeane Garofalo), who is graceful and assured when fielding the bizarre queries of pet owners on air ("Is it OK to sedate my goldfish by putting diazepam in his bowl?"), but awkward to the point of reclusiveness in her private life, which she spends alone stroking her cat and scraping her cat-gut - she's a mean fiddler. Love enters her earphones one afternoon when Brian (Ben Chaplin), an English photographer with an urgent Great Dane problem, calls for help and is smitten by her calm intelligence and purring voice.

Brian asks for a date, but Abby shies away, until his persistence pushes her to an unlikely resort: she wangles her neighbour Noelle (Uma Thurman) into adopting her identity. Noelle, a professional model, is not too swift on the uptake but she's kindly and has the kind of looks which literally cause road accidents. Brian falls for the deception - charitable viewers will need to assume that, since he is otherwise perfectly shrewd, the chap must be made deaf to the difference in the two women's voices by the racket of his unruly hormones - and from this point on, the plot is largely made up of farcical narrow squeaks, given tart edge by Abby's misery when she realises that Noelle also finds Brian rather yummy. As well she might: Brian (very likeably played by Chaplin, best known for his role in BBC2's Game On) is a more recognisable and appealing ambassador for British manhood than the effete Hugh Grant type. It's reassuring to see that an accent lightly seasoned with memories of sarf Lunnon need be no obstacle to amorous fulfilment on the West Coast.

The youngish director Michael Lehmann (Heathers, Hudson Hawk, etc) handles the screenplay's shifts in tone smoothly: it's unpredictably ruminative as well as frothy, and the cast help make its most moth-eaten stuff feel newly spun. Janeane Garofalo, who began her career as a stand-up, may have a name that looks like a typographical error but she also has a spiky, hacked-off comic presence that can burn her fellow performers off the screen. She had the best moment in The Cable Guy as the surly waitress in the medieval theme restaurant, and hers was the only memorable performance in Bye Bye Love, as the frightful blind date who summed up her erotic philosophy in the phrase: "Basically I'm looking for a mammal".

In The Truth About Cats and Dogs, she has plenty of mammals, and her first starring vehicle. But instead of making a big brash meal of the role, she underplays Abby so diligently that it's sometimes hard to recognise her as the same woman who acted opposite Jim Carrey with an anarchist tattoo on her breast. Though she has a few stinging lines ("Nothing that a rooftop and an AK47 won't take care of ..."), we're never allowed to lose sight of Abby's vulnerability, or what the magazine-educated Noelle calls "low self-esteem". The effect is double-edged: while it gives the love fantasy some real emotions in which to take root, it also feels a shade timid on the part of the film-makers, as if we wouldn't be inclined to cheer for a heroine who was stubbornly cranky and built of iron like Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn in a Howard Hawks movie.

Similarly, casting Ms Garofalo as a lady Cyrano pulls the comedy's philosophical punch, modest as it already is. "The truth is Helen of Troy," Abby grumbles, "men die for that shit." Yet Abby's not a beautiful soul trapped in an ugly body, she's a beautiful soul in a body that would only seem relatively unappealing when stood next to Uma Thurman. If then: in one scene, Brian takes portrait shots of both women, and viewed through Brian's camera (that is, in shots set up by the film's cinematographer Robert Brinkman) Abby's hair and eyes become as warm and sensual as her voice, and she

briefly ensnares his gaze every bit as firmly as Noelle, who starts to seem a little pallid and glacial.

Still, if it's all a cheat, it's what Proust's first translator called a sweet cheat. Abby and Brian are so engaging that you want the poor deluded bloke to come to the right conclusion, and don't mind too much that the narrative jettisons Noelle rather summarily - nor that that final clinch is engineered by way of a dog and a pair of rollerskates, just like that advert for tampons. If only it had made more of the animal business it set up at the beginning, The Truth About Cats and Dogs might have been an out-and-out classic, rather than well above average. The real truth about cats and dogs is that their mortal leases have all too short a date; this review is in memoriam Buster (1983-1996), a very fine cat.

One of the glossy magazines Noelle reads contains an article entitled "Loser guys and how to spot them". Perhaps it included some of these subtle danger signals: he breakfasts on vodka and cornflakes, both of which he has shop-lifted; his idea of healthy exercise is to get sloshed and try to ski down the stairs; he hasn't washed his clothes in four years; he spends his days asleep on a defunct mattress or listlessly throwing dice into a pizza box. Such are the habits of Antoine and Fred (Francois Cluzet and Guillaume Depardieu), the loser's losers whose forlorn and torpid days are the subject of Pierre Salvadori's agreeably glum comedy Les Apprentis (15).

Like Withnail and I, to which it is plainly a Gallic cousin, Les Apprentis is a slow-burner, with not too much in the way of storyline beyond Antoine's entropic slide from aspiring playwright to depressive crossword-compiler (the editor reads out his morbid clues with mounting incredulity) to bungling burglar to full-blown basket case. Though he surrounds his two feckless heroes with a gallery of grotesques - almost everyone in the film is some kind of freak, from the demented old landlady who thinks that her maid creeps in at night to inject her while she's asleep, to the slob who likes to watch Fred having sex with his girlfriend - Salvadori seldom forces the jokes or the pace. He's beautifully served by his leads: the melancholic Cluzet, overwhelmingly reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman, whose every small nervous twitch of the lips denotes another rung on the ladder down to lunacy, and Gerard's lad Guillaume, whose quiet symphony of cloddishness as Fred won him a French Oscar.

Happy Gilmore (12) is a dim if innocuous comedy about a would-be hockey star (the lumpish Adam Sandler) who discovers an unexpected talent for golf, exploits it for money to save his dear old granny's house and wins the championship, The End. Mr Tim Smith, the golf fanatic and movie reviewer for BBC radio, assures me that even lovers of the sport will be left cold.

Michael Robertson's Back of Beyond (15), an Australian low-budget supernatural thriller, of sorts, set in magnificent scenery which repeatedly upstages the cast, stars Paul Mercurio (of Strictly Ballroom fame) as a garage mechanic-cum-hermit whose long solitude is cruelly interrupted by an Aboriginal family who talk like therapists. If you don't see the spooky twist coming, it's because most of the sequences induce a state of mild hypnosis.

Cinema Details: Going Out, page 14.