Cat Person

Attractive twenty year-old college sophomore Margot (Emilia Jones, "CODA") notes an older man in the lobby of the art house cinema where she works and attempts to flirt by noting the rarity of his Red Vines purchase.  Robert (Nicholas Braun, 'Succession's' cousin Greg) will ask ‘concession stand girl’ for her number and charm her with his witty texts and the revelation that he is a “Cat Person.”

Laura's Review: C+

While director Susanna Fogel ("The Spy Who Dumped Me") has shepherded two good performances from her leads, she and writer Michelle Ashford’s (TV's 'Masters of Sex') adaptation of Kristen Roupenian's sensational 2017 short story expands it in all the wrong directions, creating an irrecoverable imbalance and rendering Margot a complete lunatic.  They’ve chosen a perfect Margaret Atwood quote to kick off their story of male/female mating perspectives (‘Men are afraid women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid men will kill them.’), but overemphasized the latter half of that equation.

The film begins with an obvious embellishment, a presumably abandoned friendly Rottweiler Margot tries to rescue from an oncoming rainstorm.  When a dorm denizen objects, the dog goes out and Margot has a nightmare, the dog having turned murderous.  A scarcely mentioned but pivotal roommate in the story turns into Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan, "Blockers," "The Beanie Bubble") here, a manifestation of Margot's worst fears who even she objects to but who adds to the adaptation’s over-emphasis on violence and danger.

The film has also been opened up in some interesting ways, Margot studying under Dr. Enid Zabala (Isabella Rossellini, delightfully expanding on her ‘Green Porno’ persona as an insect sex researcher here), Robert given therapist Dr. Resnick (Fred Melamed, "A Serious Man") as receptacle for his inner thoughts.  The story’s cinematic background has been made more specific, Robert now a Harrison Ford fan, a device used to explain his sexual awkwardness.  A pet peeve of mine is that texting shown in movies is often difficult if not impossible to read, but cinematographer Manuel Billeter (TV’s ‘Jessica Jones’) keeps those cell phone screens clearly visible in a film where texts are crucial to the plot.

The film begins to go off the rails when Margot goes home on break, her mother Kelly (Hope Davis) pushing her into dueting on a cringey rendition of ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ for dad’s 60th, a scene which merely renders both sexual objects, Margot a particularly inappropriate one.  The story rebounds with its climax, Margot’s vulnerability after being refused entry to a bar turning into a regretted seduction, one which Billeter treats like a horror movie, Braun looming over Jones like an intently focused beast.  But when the back pedaling begins, Margot trying to recognize Robert’s good qualities by letting him down lightly, the filmmakers overturn those initial efforts to such a ridiculous degree it is impossible to continue to see both sides.  Even here, Billeter remains an asset, his horror film angles particularly effective as Margot is dragged through a dog door.

Jones is very effective as the hopeful romantic, delighting in and over analyzing every text response or delay, reveling in her youthful sexual power, growing anxious during silences.  Braun suggests everything Margot projects onto him, the fast wit, the lower brow intellectual tastes, the gentlemanly protector, the porn-addicted aggressor, the potential murderer.  They appear to have gotten the assignment far more than Ashford has, despite her attempt to tie her climax back to Margot’s anthropological studies.  The film’s production design capably creates a college town, Robert’s home both neat enough to inspire admiration while dark enough to suggest hidden horrors.

While the short story ended on a chilling text which would also have been the perfect place to end the film as well, watch for the late breaking appearance of Michael Gandolfini ("The Many Saints of Newark") to take the film right back to where it started.  “Cat Person” is a frustrating experience, a film with evident potential squandered by poor narrative choices.

Robin's Review: C+

Rialto Pictures released "Cat Person" in NY theaters on 10/6/23, expanding in subsequent weeks.  Click here for play dates.