‘Cat Person’ Movie Review: The viral story gets a harrowing adaptation

Sundance: Susanna Fogel directs Kristen Roupenian’s story in a mostly instructive way, but an odd (and new) third act dilutes its power.

Kristen Roupenian’s final words viral 2017 New York novel ‘Cat Person’ a gut-wrenching, apt 7,000 words that alternate between hilariously true and painfully honest. According to the short stories, Roupenian’s was the winner, an uncomfortable story that turned the played-out romantic tropes (awkward, cute!) into something much richer and wiser. It follows the seemingly ill-fated and short-lived relationship between university student Margot and an older man (but not too much older) Robert as he goes from sweet to scary, from awkward to downright creepy. It was a terrible feeling for many women, painfully familiar, and that it ended the way it did, with that one terrible word, was just perfect.

One small problem with the inevitable film adaptation: this ending doesn’t quite follow typical movie expectations. Directly? The “Cat Person” story has no “third act,” a pretty muscular request for the “Cat Person” of the movie. And while Susanna Fogel’s feature film version of the story is sufficiently harrowing (that’s high praise; most of the time it sets your teeth on edge and raises the hairs on the back of your neck, as it should), it’s confusing, messy. , and the brand-new final act contradicts Roupenian’s story and the very emotions it evokes in its readers.

“Masters of Sex” creator Michelle Ashford (who certainly knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of human sexuality, power dynamics, and interpersonal communication) is off to a strong start in Fogel’s “Cat Person” screen adaptation. College sophomore Margot (‘CODA’ breakout Emilia Jones) is wasting another night at the concession stand at the local art theater when the awkward (but maybe cute?) Robert (Nicholas Braun, star of ‘The Succession’) arrives and offers the bored An opportunity for Margot to flirt, if only to break the monotony of the night. He soon returns, asks for Margot’s number, and gives her the whip (but no street smart) a new curiosity grows to occupy his time.

But even Margot picks up on more pressing concerns like, oh, the general anxiety of being a woman in this world. And as she walks back to her dorm, all alone in the night, her best friend and roommate (the ever-welcome Geraldine Viswanathan, an expanded role from her role as “Tamara” in the novella) chats with her on the phone. about being safe, getting home on time, not getting killed, etc. LOL! Not being a lady entertainment?

It is and it isn’t, and that’s just one of the many binaries that exist in this story—the line between cute and weird, seductive and tragic, adventurous and just plain scary—that Fogel deftly explores. in the film. Jones and Braun are both superbly cast, with Jones winningly toeing the line between Margot’s relative innocence and manipulative desires, and Braun turning creepy when you least expect it (again, a compliment).

Geraldine Viswanathan and Emilia Jones star in Susanna Fogel's Cat Person, an official selection for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Premiere Program.  Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“Cat Person”

Sundance Film Festival

Like Roupenian’s story, much of “Cat Person” hinges on Margot and Robert’s early giddy exchanges. They’re snarky, fun, and flirtatious, making them far less awkward than their face-to-face interactions, and while it’s initially hard to see why Margot would even give this guy the time of day, their text chemistry is a case in point. Fogel displays text in a variety of formats, both with on-screen chat bubbles and a glance at Margot’s phone. We hear him knocking out messages, we eagerly await the ringing of the incoming SMS, we are there with him. This is how it should be.

Fans of the story won’t be disappointed by much of the film, which sticks closely to Roupenian’s text (never fear, Robert’s horribly bad kiss is very much here, even more disgusting and hilarious in the hands – mouths of Jones and Braun? ). Even before the film slips in the final act, more padding is offered, and understandably so (the film clocks in at just under two hours and rarely drags).

Some are funnier than they should be (like Taylor running a feminist subreddit called “The Vagenda”), while some are weirdly underwhelming (Margot’s work alongside a beloved professor played by Isabella Rossellini feels like such a lame attempt to add an anthropological element. element of the whole). Other extensions add important context, such as a trip home where Margot’s mother (played by a wonderfully frail Hope Davis) offers her daughter romantic advice that seems convincing and later turns out to be disastrous.

The depiction of Margot’s inner monologue—a key element of the story—is treated similarly, in good and bad ways. Quick cut fantasy series featuring Margot actually Being attacked by Robert feels jarring and unnecessary, mostly because Jones’s solid performance suggests his terror at the right moments, and because Fogel feels so good about shooting other scenes in a horror-movie atmosphere (aided by Heather McIntosh’s nerve-wracking score). A more complex sequence in which Margot imagines Robert opening up about his relationship concerns to a therapist (Fred Melamed) works better, but nothing beats Margot (literally) talking to herself during an annoying sex scene.

It’s this entire sequence that most directly showcases this adaptation’s strengths. And while bringing in a second Margot might seem like the easy way out, best of all, it’s not. This is the much more difficult path, much more painful, much more honest. As Margot (and we) survey Robert’s house (no cats, despite his endless chatter about them, but plenty of empty McDonald’s cups and a cheerfully placed Minority Report DVD), even those unfamiliar with the novella know it. .

The real drama? How Margot feels about this, how she tries to talk her into an experience she doesn’t want to go through, while Robert keeps showing himself to be (at best!) a very bad guy. It’s the best parts of ‘Cat Person’, both the story and the film, distilled into a powerful essence.

Less successful is the film’s final act, which tries to tie up all sorts of loose ends, answering questions from the mundane (does Robert really have cats?) to the unnecessary (is Robert really a bad guy?). to stitch together a story that strikes me much better if it is allowed to be more open-ended. Is Robert really a bad guy? Isn’t that the point of this whole story? Oddly enough, Ashford tries to answer it, but the script bends so far back that it becomes strangely too muddled to make any hard and fast observations. What a crappy way to end it.

Final word on ‘Cat Person’? Not nearly as biting and pitch-perfect as the story that inspired it: that’s good…enough. It could have been more.

grade: B-

“Cat Person” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Currently looking for distribution.

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