After his impressive debut with “Heathers” and then ill-fated turns on “Hudson Hawk,””Meet the Applegates” and “Airheads,” director Michael Lehmann tries his hand at an utterly conventional comedy scripted by first-time writer (and former disc jockey) Audrey Wells.
The premise is sheer simplicity, with a touch of screwball farce that Lehmann can’t quite maintain. Janeane Garofalo plays Abby, host of a radio talkshow about pets who talks a caller, dreamy photographer Brian (Ben Chaplin, “Remains of the Day”) , making his U.S. debut after roles in a number of British films, among them “Remains of the Day”) through a threatening experience with a dog he’s acquired for a photo shoot.
Attracted to Abby’s phone-side manner, Brian suggests the two meet, yet when asked what she looks like, Abby describes her model neighbor, Noelle (Uma Thurman) — a 5-foot-10-inch blonde who can literally stop traffic. When Brian shows up unexpectedly at the station and Noelle is there, Abby enlists her to help carry off the ruse, creating a confusing situation made worse when both women become interested in Brian.
Two threads are at work here: Abby’s apprehension about whether Brian could be attracted to her (does he love her for what she says or how she looks?) and Abby and Noelle’s unlikely friendship, with the strain brought about by their mutual interest in Brian.
Unlike “Roxanne,” though– another and more obvious updated take on “Cyrano,” where Daryl Hannah really is taken in by the physical charms of a strapping firefighter — Brian is such a thoroughly decent fellow there’s little question about where he stands. And because there’s virtually no suspense about how things will turn out, the pic drags somewhat before its conclusion as the courtship period is padded before Brian inevitably discovers what a chump he’s been.
The one really unconventional moment meanwhile, is a courtship scene in which Abby and Brian spend the night on the phone together, quite literally, in a display of self-gratification not celebrated this amusingly or, at least, this enthusiastically since a memorable episode of “Seinfeld.”
What really makes “The Truth About Cats & Dogs” special in places however, is Garofalo’s dry, self-effacing wit and Thurman’s ditzy, old-style Hollywood glamour. Between her ongoing “Larry Sanders Show” role and scene-stealing turn in “Bye Bye, Love,” Garofalo has quickly established herself as a real presence with a perfectly droll delivery, while Thurman is shown off to good effect here as a scatterbrained model who yearns to “read the news,” cheerfully recounting hundreds of deaths in her audition.
Making the most of its Santa Monica locales, pic does provide a few broad comedic moments courtesy of four-legged creatures but doesn’t really develop any supporting players. The song score captures the same tone, making “The Truth” pleasant enough for those looking for a distraction between now and the dog days of summer.