The second movie in two weeks to use mistaken identity as a basis for romantic comedy (the other is "Mrs. Winterbourne"), "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" is the more ambitious.
This gender reversal of "Cyrano de Bergerac" flirts with serious themes, and for a while, it appears that director Michael Lehmann's film could be a classic along the lines of "Tootsie."
Janeane Garofalo plays Dr. Abby Barnes, the host of an ask-the-veterinarian radio call-in show. On the air, she's bright, quick and funny. In real life, she's lonely and insecure about her looks.
When a photographer named Brian (Ben Chaplin), whom she had helped out of a mess with a huge dog and a pair of roller- skates, calls to ask her out, Abby accepts. When he asks her to describe herself, she panics. Abby, a compact brunette, describes her lanky (5-foot-10), blond model neighbor - whose looks, in one scene, literally stop traffic - and then doesn't show up for their date.
Abby meets this neighbor, Nicole (Uma Thurman), that night by getting between the model and her abusive agent-boyfriend. The next day, Nicole shows up at the radio station to thank Abby, just as Brian drops in to ask for a date in person. Of course, he thinks Nicole is Abby, and Abby, terrified of rejection, doesn't set him straight. Instead, she pretends to be the best friend of "Abby."
Abby and Nicole are opposites in more than just looks. Nicole is gorgeous and confident but dim. Abby is bright but thinks she is dumpy-looking. In any case, Brian is sure he's found his dream woman - one with incredible looks and a brainy wit.
This is a point Nicole brings up later. "Together, you and I make the perfect woman," she tells Abby.
"Together," Abby shoots back, "you and I make the perfect political prisoner. What we do best is act self-righteous and starve."
Abby and Brian quite literally spend the night together over the phone, and fall madly in love. However, a comic series of misadventures ensues in which Nicole also begins to fall for Brian, and neither woman can find the right way to set him straight.
There are two good plot threads to Audrey Wells' screenplay - the romance between Brian and whoever, and the unlikely friendship between Abby and Nicole. Chaplin is charming, but this movie belongs to the women: Thurman, a likable Hollywood screwball blonde, and Garofalo, droll in a Rosalind Russell kind of way (and more attractive than her character thinks she is). Garofalo's terrific performance should lift her out of witty best-friend roles into stardom.
It would be easy to snipe that the scenario for is contrived, but that is always the case in mistaken-identity movies, which have a long and honorable tradition in the movies. "Cats and Dogs" takes it a step too far, though. Brian spends his happiest moments talking to Abby on the phone but never tumbles to the fact that the best friend of the woman he thinks is Abby sounds just like Abby.
Also, the movie stumbles whenever it approaches a serious theme. Nicole's abusive relationship is treated as a plot device; the dark side of how this affects her personality is never explored. Also, during several key scenes when we would really like to hear clearly what the characters are saying, director Lehmann ("Hudson Hawk") arranges a music video to hawk the soundtrack.
Most important of all, the movie blows the chance to explore how much the identification with the looks of a person is wrapped up in what you love about them. Brian is so decent that we know once he finds the truth, things will eventually work out. "Cats and Dogs" never gets beyond the message that beauty is only skin deep - and so, unfortunately, is the story.
Garofalo and Thurman's winning performances, however, make "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" a painless way to see a star born.