L.A. Flaw

The Hat Squad, a legendary quartet of LAPD robbery detectives during the '50s, was the inspiration for Mulholland Falls, a period mystery vaguely in the Chinatown/Devil in a Blue Dress vein. In the first scene, the boys (Nick Nolte, Chazz Palminteri, Chris Penn and Michael Madsen) throw a new-in-town gangster (William Petersen) off the cliffs along Mulholland Drive, maiming him, then tell him to return to Chicago because "there's no organized crime in Los Angeles."

The historical Hat Squad detectives, although by no means above having the casual attitude toward due process that used to be seen as a police officer's prerogative, do not appear to have been the sort of violent vigilantes that the film presents. (Retired Los Angeles Times writer and Sun City resident Jack Hawn told me that his research has suggested none of this, and noted that two of the members went on to become judges.)

In Mulholland Falls, they're just standard-issue maverick movie cops and they're never referred to as the Hat Squad. Produced with some lushness and a cast full of big names, the film tries to treat its heroes in a typical cop-movie manner--with coy, jocular humor. It's to the credit of the director, Lee Tamahori, and his cast that the scenes in which the lads banter and josh with each other fall flat. After the Simi Valley verdict and Mark Fuhrmann, chuckling at the cute antics of those wacky L.A. cops just isn't so much fun anymore.

It could be argued that, for Tamahori, the man behind Once Were Warriors, that near-great The Lower Depths of slum life among the Maoris in modern-day New Zealand, to direct a film like Mulholland Falls is along the lines of Spike Lee or Woody Allen going to Berlin to direct a film about the nutty adventures of rogue Gestapo officers. Yet Tamahori manages to preserve both his own dignity and the film's.

Pete Dexter's script shoots for a little irony at times, as in the aforementioned opening episode. But it's thin, untroubling irony--we know we aren't really being challenged by it.

The plot proper, which is entirely fictitious, has little to do with vigilantism, other than a thematic link between Nolte and pals and another group that has occasionally regarded itself as above the law--the U.S. military. When the boys look into the gruesome death of a young woman (Jennifer Connelly, impossibly gorgeous, as always) with whom Nolte had a connection, they learn that she was also linked to some military bigwigs conducting nuke tests out in the Nevada desert. When they follow up on these leads, they get a dose of their own medicine.

The mystery isn't particularly a stumper--it can't be, if I, who am as clueless as they come at mysteries, figured it out before it's revealed. But the whodunit aspect isn't where the film's heart is anyway. The cinematography of the great Haskell Wexler has a luxuriant, airy glitter, and Tamahori briskly showcases his big-time cast in a satisfying series of sharp turns--Andrew McCarthy as a jittery gay witness, Treat Williams as an uppity military man, Daniel Baldwin as a creepy FBI man, Melanie Griffith as Nolte's adoring wife and, most memorably, John Malkovich as the twitchy scientist who holds the key to the case.

Mulholland Falls isn't a knockout movie, but it is an enjoyable one--absorbing, in a relaxing, watching-TV way. Wexler and Tamahori's respective light touches give it a faintly fairy-tale tone that keeps the kid-gloves handling of the ethical issues from seeming too offensive, except during those "comic" passages. If only the script hadn't worked so hard at being conventional, it might have succeeded at being something more.

The Truth About Cats & Dogs: Directed by Michael Lehmann; with Janeane Garofalo, Uma Thurman, Ben Chaplin, James McCaffrey and Jamie Foxx. Rated PG-13.

Last year's Bye Bye, Love was literally a McMovie--it was built around characters hanging out at a McDonald's, and, with the exception of two elements, the film was as inoffensive and unmemorable as that restaurant chain's fare. The wild cards were, first, the surprisingly serious, heartfelt acting of Paul Reiser and, second, the joltingly funny, inventive performance of Janeane Garofalo as Randy Quaid's crazy blind date.

Garofalo took her small, cliched role--the single woman so manically defensive she's unstable--so far over the top that she shook that square movie to funky life. It was like a nouveau-Cajun chef had been turned loose in a McDonald's kitchen.

The Truth About Cats & Dogs is Garofalo's first time as a major-studio leading lady, and it's a bit disappointing to see her behaving like just that--a lady. This low-key romantic farce is by no means unpleasant, but it could use a little of the juice that its star brought to her scenes in Bye Bye, Love. Here, she plays a shy, demure young heroine and, while she does so charmingly, it isn't the best use to which she could have been put.

All the same, she's the only real reason to bother with The Truth About Cats & Dogs, unless you're among that seeming legion for whom Uma Thurman is the new "it" girl. The plot is straight out of Love, American Style. A young veterinarian (Garofalo) hosts an engaging phone-in radio show in which she fields pet-care questions. One day, she helps a nice, handsome young Brit photographer (Ben Chaplin) through an emergency, and he asks to meet her in person. She, embarrassed at her supposedly frumpy looks, impulsively presses her upstairs neighbor and pal (Thurman), a model, into service as her body double. Goofy complications ensue, most of them more or less predictable.

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