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Cat Person movie review

Culture

Cat Person Is an Upchucked Hairball of an Adaptation

Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person takes the obnoxiously unsubtle route, ballooning the intimate grey areas of the original viral story into inane, cut-and-dry moments.

Sundance 2023: Cat Person Review

With just a little over 7000 words, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat person” (a 2017 short story published in the New Yorker) wove itself into the cultural fabric with piercing, succinct profundity. Its tight scope, primarily centered around a single date from the perspective of a young woman, tapped into a rich vein of discourse and debate around how men and women interact, sexual or otherwise, in a post “#MeToo” world. Its excruciatingly detailed encapsulation of the power dynamics, emotional risks, and quiet terror of dating in the digital age kindled a rediscovering, and re-negotiating, of the boundaries both women and men set for themselves.

Its infamous sex scene alone exposes the hidden truths that underpin the decisions of action, or inaction, many women take when posed with an encounter they no longer want to follow through with. Outside of its cultural exposé, it’s a supremely well-written work that is both subtle and searing, superseding a need to be a weighty piece of literary fiction to be a pivotal account of the zeitgeist.

However, that micro-fiction format presents a large issue for its cinematic undertaking beyond just expansion, precisely because Roupenian’s story forgoes a third act, instead building up to one final scorching line. Yet, this aspect also emboldens a bevy of striking possibilities that at once can stay true to the spirit of the source material while forging a new provocative path.

Instead, Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person takes the obnoxiously unsubtle route, ballooning the original story’s captivating grey areas into inane, cut-and-dry moments. What should have been a cutting-edge exploration of bitter truths surrounding the modern romantic experience is transformed into an asinine horror and a tepid romantic comedy — where both aspects compete for greater incipience.

Rife with obvious analogies, baffling segues, and a groan-eliciting third act that erodes every semblance of the short story’s intimate, biting truths, Fogel’s adaptation is the cinematic equivalent of an upchucked hairball.

Emilia Jones stars as Margot, a 20-year-old college student working concessions at an independent, art-house movie theater where she butts heads with the moviegoing —and much older —Robert (Nicholas Braun). Their nascent flirting transitions into continuous texting, building toward a romance, full of red flags and awkward moments, where their inevitable first date not only features a bad sexual encounter but a night that unearths many would-be unsettling truths about contemporary dating.

Cat Person movie review
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Yet, any notion of restraint and clever commentary is immediately obliterated in its opening moments, boasting a painfully on-the-nose quote from Margaret Atwood — which in hindsight, agonizingly foreshadows the abysmal conclusion and its equally lazy implementation. Moments later, it veers into an eye-rolling, immensely overplayed discussion of the inverted sexual politics in the insect kingdom, where the male must adjust to the whims and desires of the more powerful, ruthless female. Cat Person is littered with such obvious parallels that wear their politics on their sleeves, adamant it has all the right answers, relinquishing the intimate reasoning of Roupenian’s original.

This is most numbingly realized in Geraldine Viswanathan’s portrayal of Tamara, Margot’s best friend, who is enlarged into a pontificating, politically charged caricature who spells the film’s commentary out (in capital letters) with each clunkily delivered rant. She’s one of a plethora of additions (including a woefully underused Isabella Rossellini) who fail to speak like actual humans, instead operating as entities devised to stretch the runtime.

In transforming part of the story into a surreal horror film, underpinned by a checklist score of rote piano stings and a throng of sigh-inducing sound effects, Fogel and company attempt to add visual and sonic force to the text’s themes, but only dilute its subtle wallops of insight and sincerity. When it’s not bombarding the screen with cliched fog and bombastic detours, it’s deeply entrenched in formula. Rendering the earnestly awkward couple of the short story a tropey twosome iterative of the worst teen rom-coms— where the masculine counterpart is slowly made to be a one-dimensional villain rather than the flawed, insecure creature vividly realized in the original.

Its constant shift between romantic comedy and date-horror always clashes, with neither direction being fleshed out and rendered bold enough to be interesting on its own. This tonal mismarriage brings the pace to a screeching halt, an issue already exacerbated by a film struggling to tack on a third act where none was needed to begin with.

Though remnants of the source material remain, most effectively realized in Braun’s twitchy performance, they are dwarfed by a need for constant oddity, employing frustrating cutaway gags that zap each intimate, natural moment of tension and catharsis — while also corroding the two lead’s burgeoning dynamic.

Even the pivotal sex scene is made agonizingly twee, rendering what should have been a hotbed of personal turmoil, anguish, and dilemma a quirky trifle at best. Once the film approaches the original’s bombshell finale, there’s still an entire act remaining.

Already having exhausted (and exsanguinated) the original text, the film makes a sudden, baffling turn towards stalker alley. Braun’s Robert is rendered a villainous predator who pursues Margot until he obtains what he desires. In addition to the final confrontation being laughably choreographed, it haphazardly devolves into everything it previously attempted to satirize, denigrating its characters’ arcs, so far removed from the clever observation of modern romance it was billed as.

Cat Person not only butchers its viral source material but completely fails to capture its powerful subtlety with a graceful, nuanced cinematic eye. Its digressions into horror and romantic comedy render the film a generic, whitewashed Hollywood production evocative of the worst each genre has on offer. Its inception should have been “cat”-nipped in the bud, as it’s easily the worst film at Sundance this year.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival takes place from January 19th to 29thFind all our coverage here.

– Prabhjot Bains

Written By

Prabhjot Bains is a Toronto-based film writer and critic who has structured his love of the medium around three indisputable truths- the 1970s were the best decade for American cinema, Tom Cruise is the greatest sprinter of all time, and you better not talk about fight club. His first and only love is cinema and he will jump at the chance to argue why his movie opinion is much better than yours. His film interests are diverse, as his love of Hollywood is only matched by his affinity for international cinema. You can reach Prabhjot on Instagram and Twitter @prabhjotbains96

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