When Robert walks into a movie theater in a college town, Margot, who works at the dealership, watches him as he approaches the cash register. He “looks like the best friend from an Apatow movie,” she texts her friend, Taylor, smiling at her intelligence. “So big, dark and…problematic? Taylor responds.
From the start, cat person is self-satisfied, telegraphing the obvious of the broad, foreshadowing, and often condescending additional material the film adds, ruining almost everything interesting about its source material.
What is frustrating is that cat person really should and could have worked. It is based on the 2017 short story written by Kristen Roupenian and which appeared in the new yorker, before turning social media, the blogosphere, the literary world, group texts, brunches and toxic internet forums into a blazing inferno of talk. When the fire hose finally extinguished a debate, it would ignite in another area of the zeitgeist and wreak havoc once again.
“Cat Person”, as he appeared in the new yorker, was the story of a girl who dated a guy, recounting her private thoughts about their gender dynamics, power imbalances, chemistry, and her feelings about sex and romance in a modern world. Is it harmless and charming? Is he really a predator? Is it unfair to assume the latter? Doesn’t she have to assume the latter? What role did she play to “guide” him? Should the concept of “leading someone” still exist?
These were fascinating questions that internet culture has metastasized into other awkward debates. Was the story good? Was wondering if it was good an inherent misogyny? After all, this style of writing is often presented as brilliant from a male perspective. We wondered if it was fiction or autofiction, and if it mattered.
What about Margot, the privilege of the narrator and her position of power? Maybe she was being unfair to Robert. She even shamed him. Or did she? Maybe she was just saying what she thought, unpleasant as that was – which was the whole point of a story like this anyway.
Everything was so juicy. It was tiring. It was the perfect fodder for a Very Right Now movie.
Nicholas Braun, aka Cousin Greg of Successionand Emilia Jones, the endearing escape from CODA, have been chosen to play the lead roles, the epitome of It Stars’ exciting cast. It was slated to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it easily ranked among the most anticipated projects in the mountains. It was like the green light for a movie via AI. Everything made sense.
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And then it all went so wrong, especially with a wildly spinning finale from where “Cat Person,” the essay, ends. This may rank among the most pointless and ridiculous endings I’ve ever seen. After regularly bastardizing everything nuanced and ambiguous about all of those issues listed above – humiliating the audience with an over-explanation of how we’re supposed to interpret events – this ending is the final dump in the litter.
But there are things about cat person which, at first, really work.
Braun and Jones are fantastic. He’s the perfect actor to ask the question “is he clumsy and awkward at dating, or is he going to kill me” that matches Margot’s paranoia, whether it’s necessary or ridiculous. And Jones telegraphs all the conflicting urges of someone who can’t fight the feeling that because she’s a young woman she could always be in danger, while still wanting to give a possibly nice guy a chance. .
Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers) is particularly formidable as Taylor, whose extreme feminism and militant insistence on boundaries fuel Margot’s constant unease, but are also necessary for her to be on guard and protective. There are several incredibly funny moments in the film’s first act, when there seems to be a wry realization of the news and the deluge of discussion it has caused. All too quickly, however, this self-reference turns into a didactic explanation.
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Although he never appears in the new yorker story, the film begins by displaying a quote from Margaret Atwood onscreen, to make sure we understand the lesson of what we’re about to watch before it even begins. It’s a red flag. Whether it is the quote is another: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. The women are afraid that the men will kill them. At the time, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if the director had walked across the screen Porky-Pig-in-Looney-Tunes style to say, “HEY GUYS, JUST MAKE SURE YOU KNOW TO WHAT IS THIS FILM ABOUT AND WHAT WE’M TRYING TO SAY HERE!”
Shortly after the film begins, Margot’s (Isabella Rossellini) professor, an expert in the study of insects, delivers a not-so-subtle monologue to Robert in the form of a menacing metaphor: Did you know, Robert, that when a male bee has sex with the queen of the colony, his penis falls off afterwards and he dies? Or that it is the females who work tirelessly to protect the queen and keep her alive? Robertshe says, Do you understand what will happen to you at the end of this film? (OK, maybe I added that last one.)
Margot and Robert’s relationship begins with text messages, complete with great flirtatious banter. When they finally have their first date, it’s a mixed bag. She suddenly begins to notice the things she doesn’t like about him, such as his corny obsession with Star Wars. Fleeting moments make him wonder if he’s a typical toxic asshole, but others endear him to her.
The subtext of the short story – the fate of a woman who must always wonder if he is a “bad guy” – is clear as day, as cat person, the film, intercuts their interactions with Margot’s bizarre and violent fantasies in which Robert traps and assaults her. All the complication of their dynamic is instead articulated and simplified in another imaginary scene, in which they undergo therapy and share their side of the story of these triggering encounters.