Cat Person (2023, dir. Susanna Fogel)

by | Oct 28, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 118 mins

UK Distributor: Studiocanal

UK Release Date: 27 October 2023

WHO’S IN CAT PERSON?

Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Isabella Rossellini, Hope Davis, Fred Melamed, Christopher Shyer, Liza Koshy, Josh Andrés Rivera, Isaac Cole Powell, Liza Colón-Zayas, Michael Gandolfini

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Susanna Fogel (director), Michelle Ashford (writer), Helen Estabrook and Jeremy Steckler (producers), Heather McIntosh (composer), Manuel Billeter (cinematographer), Jacob Craycroft (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young woman (Jones) is pursued by an older man (Braun)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON CAT PERSON?

Adaptations of short stories are far from impossible to pull off, but that doesn’t make them any less difficult. When you have material that’s only a limited set of words long, it requires a lot of creativity and imagination to try and expand it into a piece of visual media designed to be anywhere between 80 or 120 (or even more) minutes long, since there is only so much that the written word can provide in terms of its themes, characters etc before you’re forced to carry it all the way to the finish line. However, it can also result in a final product where the liberties taken by the filmmakers end up denting the original story’s impact, with add-ons that are intriguing in theory and occasionally even execution but ultimately do little to say more than what was initially said in that source material.

Cat Person, the film adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s viral New Yorker short story of the same name, is a perfect example of this. While there are some interesting ideas in director Susanna Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford’s interpretation of Roupenian’s prose, the directions that they end up going with it are extremely odd, and struggle to maintain the power of simply reading that shocking original story.

As in the short story, the film follows 20-year-old college student Margot (Emilia Jones) who, whilst working at a local cinema, attracts the attention of a 30-something guy named Robert (Nicholas Braun), who eventually asks for her number. The two of them seem to get on well through their consistent text messaging, but when it comes to actually dating in person, the results could not be more different. Robert, who came across quite charming and sensitive over text, turns out to be a rather socially-awkward dork who worships Harrison Ford as the beacon of masculinity, speaks rather passive-aggressively to his date when she asks a number of questions, and worst of all is terrible at both kissing and love-making. However, when Margot finally decides it isn’t working out between them, she ends up putting herself in an unnerved position where she begins fearing for her own safety.

Both versions of Cat Person are intended to be uncomfortable and honest depictions of modern-day dating, but whereas Roupenian’s original short story maintained a consistent pace and tone that managed to make it both uncomfortable and honest, the film is much more all over the place for it to have the same effect. Fogel and Ashford jam several different tones and genres into their film, sometimes all at once to make it even more jarring; it starts off as this quirky rom-com, then it sprinkles some thriller and even horror elements into the mix, then it’s a light-hearted comedy again before becoming an after-school special where characters talk to imaginary versions of themselves, until it finally settles on being a straightforward psychological thriller for the final act.

It’s hard to get a read on this film as you’re never sure if you are meant to be unnerved or laughing along with what’s happening, because Ashford’s script keeps throwing all these different tones at the wall, which Fogel’s direction enables through its unsubtle handling of the bigger themes at play. Since it is such a tonal mess, it makes it harder to buy that the things which happen in this movie – especially during the third act – are genuinely reflective of how it is in reality, something that the short story managed to do much more effortlessly.

Then, there are creative choices that are just downright odd, to a point where the overall messages are further blurred. Throughout the film, Emilia Jones’s Margot has a number of imaginary sequences that range from outwardly comedic – she fantasises several possible jobs for Nicholas Braun’s Robert including a grave digger, then conjures up a psychiatrist session with Fred Melamed as his therapist, and later thinks of several ways that Robert should die horrifically – to just plain gruesome, like an early one involving a dog that’s straight out of a Blumhouse horror film, and other brief flashes to her being viciously attacked by her date.

The intent, supposedly, is to show more of this character’s inner thoughts as she navigates this increasingly uncomfortable relationship, but the way that these fantasy sequences are jammed into the movie end up leaving you uncertain if what we’re seeing is something that’s actually happening or a figment of her imagination, thereby preventing this apparent dive into her real thoughts not as deep as it thinks it is.

There’s also a number of parts where the film stops dead in its tracks to spell out its themes without being remotely subtle. Every now and then, Isabella Rossellini chimes in to deliver metaphorical speeches about queen ants and how they rule over their male colonies, all but staring directly at the audience and asking: “do you get it?” Most aggravating, though, is Geraldine Viswanathan who plays Margot’s college roommate that’s meant to be the voice of reason in this situation, but more often than not she comes across as this obnoxiously self-righteous, annoyingly nagging wet blanket who speaks almost entirely in social media buzzwords without ever feeling like she’s human. What they’re saying is not necessarily disagreeable, but when they’re executed so heavy-handedly, by characters who seem like they plucked straight out of the 2019 version of Black Christmas, it’s enough to sully the overall intent and leave it even more unsure of itself.

As a film, Cat Person works a lot less on the screen than it does on the page, though not for lack of trying as you can tell that director Fogel is certainly aiming to be ambitious with her staging and overall structure (even when it doesn’t have the intended effect), and the central performances by Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun are very good too.

However, it’s such a messy viewing experience that whatever positives you might mine from it are buried once again underneath all of its other gaping flaws, which makes it more frustrating than anything because you can always sense that there is a really good movie trying to make its way out but is constantly being held back by its own mess.

You’re better off reading the original short story – which, incidentally, you can read by clicking right here– than you are with watching the ambitious but jumbled movie that it’s inspired.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Cat Person is a frustratingly messy attempt to adapt the popular short story of the same name, with its tonal inconsistencies and heavy-handed execution sullying the overall impact of its shocking story.

Two out of five stars

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