* This post first appeared on An Online Universe *
I am a rom-com tragic.
(It’s an odd juxtaposition of terms since (a) romantic comedies are supposed to be all Meet Cute to happily ever after ending with only a minor third act detour into sadness of any kind and (b) Any suggestion of tragedy pre-supposes that Christopher Nolan is now making films about “wuv twu wuv” (The Princess Bride) which I am fairly certain hasn’t happened.)
Through thick and thin, from Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn/ Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan good to Matthew McConaughey and Drew Barrymore bad, I have watched romantic comedies through every rose-strewn, diamond-twinkled rise and fall in the much-maligned genre’s fortunes.
It hasn’t been pretty at times, and I have taken more vicarious last minute breathless trips to the nearest airport than I care to mention, but my devotion has remained true and my ardour undying (save for those misunderstandings where I think the genre is actually in love with another film fan whereby I leave in a rush not even bothering to talk it through and … well we all know how that ends.)
Through it all, I have fallen in love, which seems terribly apropos, with all the films you’d expect me to love such as Sleepless in Seattle, The Pajama Game, When Harry Met Sally and even some you may not, such as Celeste and Jesse Forever.
But in the midst of this parade of the usual (very good) suspects, the one romance-drenched movie that has truly grabbed my heart by the short and Hallmarks, and this may surprise you since it is not generally regarded as a giant of the genre, is The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
The story pivots, as do all good romantic comedies, around accidental coming togethers, unforeseen connections and flawed expectations, all of which combine to thwart any appreciation of what’s actually going on until it’s (almost) too late.
Abby Barnes (Janeane Garofolo), a radio celebrity vet, is a dispenser of sage animal-oriented advice to the good citizens of southern California, a witty, well-read, violin-playing renaissance woman who is firmly of the opinion that men only want what she to offer if it comes in the appropriately-attractive Vogue Magazine cover.
So when the handsome and charming Brian (Ben Chaplin), an English photographer with a longstanding love of literature and artistic photography, and a newfound love of dogs, thanks to his recently-acquired adorable rescue dog Hank, calls in to her show and they hit it off, she resists meeting him in person, afraid he won’t find the outer her as pleasing as the inner her.
When circumstances all but mandate a meeting – he unexpectedly turns up at the radio station in person eager to thank her for her help with Hank – she panics and pretends that her neighbour and new best friend, model and aspiring newsreader Noelle (Uma Thurman) who has fortuitously just dropped in, is the one with the wit, intelligence and “firmly held beliefs” on the use of pickles in tuna sandwiches.
Determined initially to pull a Cyrano de Bergerac and help her friend snare the man she is falling for, Noelle finds herself attracted to Brian as well, a man who treats her far better than any man she has dated including current boyfriend and manager, the misogynistic and emotionally abusive Roy (James McCaffrey).
Thus is set in train a deliciously-realised comedy of errors which sees Brian tumbling head over heels in love with the real Abby, who, in love with Brian wants to come clean and admit that she doesn’t look a thing like Noelle, who in turn is reluctant, at least at first, to dampen a chance of something possibly happening with her friend’s love interest.
It all ends happily ever after of course and thanks to a witty script by Audrey Wells that plays to the cliches but is not hostage to them, and fine performances by everyone involved, most notably the always charismatically articulate Janeane Garofolo, it has embedded itself as one of those go-to rom-coms you watch when you simply want to feel to better about the world.
There are three things in particular I love about the film:
It’s more than just a pretty face
While it is hardly a polemic on the superficial standards that often rule our romantic interactions, it does its best to advance the idea that appearances can be deceiving
and that we need to take the time to find out about the person behind the dazzling good looks, or conversely, the lack thereof.
It also delves into the effects these onerous and often artificial standards of beauty have on people, most particularly women, with both Abby and Noelle struggling with poor self-image, though from vastly different perspectives.
Uma Thurman remarked on this message in an article by Craig Kopp in the Cincinnati Post when the film was first released in 1996:
“We probably keep going back to that idea because there’s a whole industry that needs to sell a lot of products that wants us to think that the outside is the important part. There’s a war going on. The inside’s not as commercial as the outside. People are so affected by how they’re received in the world, and some of all of our first experiences are based on how we’re externally judged. The conflict between the inner and the outer is a constant battle everybody experiences on lots of levels.”
It may not be an academic treatise granted but at least it tries to say something worthwhile, not always an easy tass in the bubblegum surrounds of the average rom-com, and at least in part succeeds, lending The Truth About Cats and Dogs a little more weight than the average resident of the genre.
It’s romantic in the Nora Ephron sense of the word
Naturally you expect there to be romance in a rom-com; what you don’t always in films of this genre is a sense of romance, that magical feeling that you’re existing in an otherworldly dimension, a place of sunsets over the beach, bubble baths and jaunty, playful music that makes you want to skip, just a little.
The Truth About Cats and Dogs has this in abundance, even if it wasn’t necessarily to star Janeane Garofolo’s liking, who signed on to the movie when it was whole lot more indie and gritty than the finished product ended up being:
“I think it’s soft and corny, and the soundtrack makes you want to puke, and everybody’s dressed in Banana Republic clothing. The original script and the original intent was very different than what it wound up being when it became a studio commercial film. It was originally supposed to be a small-budget independent film where there would be much more complexity to all the characters, and Abby and the guy don’t wind up together at the end.” (Interview, the A. V. Club)
While I can see her point, it still somehow manages to be more than the sum of its cliches, engendering a unique sense of the wider romance of life, one that encompasses a meeting of minds, of hearts and sensibilities, that exists above and beyond the simple, though delightful, act of falling in love (which is where most rom-coms begin and end).
It actually feels like it could happen … no really
Again, it’s hardly documentary-level realistic, omitting as it does a lot of the minutiae of day to day life, such as commuting, paying taxes, and schlepping groceries home on the train in a downpour that characterise the life of the average Joe or Jill.
Even so, with its examination of inner vs. outer beauty, a “war” that affects us all as Thurman noted, its willingness to let its characters say and do the sort of dumb things we are all apt to do when we least want to, and the transparent display of Abby and Noelle’s understandable insecurities, it leaves a lot more dirty laundry on display than your typical rom-com.
Witness, for instance, Abby’s day to day life.
Sure she has a great job, a lovely apartment and a range of impressive interests but The Truth About Cats and Dogs doesn’t leave it there, content to only paint her life in gorgeous Doris Day Vaseline-lensed hues; Abby comes across as a real person, saddled with as much normal emotional baggage as she has exemplary elements to her life.
Ben too is stuck paying the bills with catalog work when what he really wants to do is to take the beautiful black and white landscape images that Abby responds enthusiastically to; he is lonely and loft apart aside, he is hardly living some sort of unattainable dream.
With so much going for it, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, is one of those films that deserves to be a little more highly regarded than it often is (including by its star!).
I will grant you it is hardly Oscar-worthy material but nor is it your usual light-and-frothy with no real substance rom-com (which yes I happen to love too) and I can’t help wishing every time I see it that it would get a little more loving than it usually does.