February 5, 2023

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‘Cat Person’ Review: Don’t mistake this for a date movie

5 min read

In the wickedly ambiguous Sundance conversation-starter “Cat Person,” two singles half-generations apart see their relationships very differently. Even the word “relationship” is relative. Margot (Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old sophomore, works the concession stand at a repertory theater, where she flirts with a patron (“Legacy” Nicholas Brown) who looks a lot like a young Nicolas Cage. “Valley Girl” is not young. Like a “Wild at Heart”-era Nicolas Cage, minus the charisma. Margot described him to her roommate as “tall, dark and … troubled”. Still, she’s interested enough to give him her number. The two start texting, sending what can be aptly called “mixed messages,” and things get complicated.

“Booksmart” director Susanna Fogel, a co-author of Gen Z, makes complicated choices. In 2017, “Cat Person” originated as a fiction entry in The New Yorker, but quickly became something more. Long before anyone thought of adapting it for the big screen, Kristen Rupenian’s short story struck a nerve with a culture already steeped in understandings of seduction and consent. “Cat Person” magazine ran two months after Ronan Farrow’s exposé on Harvey Weinstein and weeks before a woman accused Aziz Ansari of having “the worst night of my life.”

Open to conflicting interpretations from any number of perspectives, “cat person” invites debate, engaging directly with the gray areas of modern dating. Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford (“Masters of Sex”) made the surprising choice to treat the material as genre fare rather than a traditional rom-com, where meet-cute isn’t and what’s next is no one’s idea of ​​a dated movie. Three years after “Promising Young Woman,” they’ve given us a film that’s funny in places, terrifying in others, and all but a reference point in discussions about future sweethearts — an idea that’s been dropped here on campus of late. With Fruity Pebbles and a Slurpee at night. We’re far from “say anything,” but much closer to reality, and that’s saying something.

Early on, Fogel delivers a quote from “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood that hits so smartly on the nose, it almost gives the film a black eye: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” .” While some might beg to differ with that assessment, as written the movie begins to feel like an exercise in proving Atwood right. To that end, Margot is prone to “Ally McBeal”-style flashes of fantasy and horror, going through some extreme scenes — like being attacked by Robert, the Red Vines-bought movie buff she’s been texting — only to suddenly come back to her senses. Usually played for laughs, which takes the sitcom cliché to a new edge as Fogel uses it, the movie’s trick is Margot’s “What if he’s a serial killer?” Repeat the anxiety tactic enough, and the audience starts to become skeptical.

That’s a healthy attitude to have here. Fogel presents the “cat person” as Margot’s subjective experience, involving a certain lack of self-awareness. Margot starts flirting at the concession stand, stalks him half way from the back of the theater and skips hard-to-get games, trading hundreds of text messages, which multiply across the screen like bacteria in a petri dish. Robert is older, knows what he wants and has a full-time job, characteristics that suggest a power differential. But youth and beauty give Margot an edge she’s only just discovering, and this guy—awkward, pathetic, a bad kisser—is like a test.

Ashford does an admirable job of expanding the short story, adding a wild ending, and fleshing out Margot’s world to include a bestie (Geraldine Viswanathan), a mother (Hope Davis), an RA (Camille Umhoff), and a teacher (Isabella Rossellini). for ) who serve as a sounding board for some of his doubts. Rossellini in particular is a nice touch: a professor who sees potential in Margot, who is otherwise pretty hard on herself, and whose expertise on the mating habits of some insects taps into the art-film legend’s “green porno” project.

Margot may work in a movie theater, but she doesn’t seem remotely interested in movies. or extracurricular of any kind. In many cases, his personality still feels off, but then, that’s what college is for. He is figuring things out, and his sexual organization is one of the elements to be workshopped. What happens when Margot goes on hiatus? How to keep Robert interested … but not too interested? He takes an intimate selfie, gets no response, then walks away. It’s hard for movies to convey the subtleties of screen-to-screen communication – the way micro-pauses, punctuation, pop-culture references are all the stuff. “Cat Person” captures those dynamics without boring us into their banter. Personal interactions between the pair are more intense.

The tone of the film is light, but laced with suspense and potential danger. Meanwhile, the title refers to the idea of ​​Robert that Margot forms in her head, due to the flurry of messages they exchange over the course of days. When he finally gets to her place, he sees no sign of the two cats he talked about. It’s a grown-up house, yet strangely immature. His unprepared bedroom is almost a deal breaker, as are his clumsy attempts at foreplay. And yet, he doesn’t go away.

The next scene is the most divisive part of Rupenian’s story. Some readers interpreted this as an attack. The script invents an interesting device, which gives Margot an outer body double. “Do we want to do it?” asks his conscience/subconscious. Jones, who starred in “CODA,” can be cruel one moment, caustic the next. His character is composed of curious contradictions, which come across as more human in the actor’s hands. “It’s easy to get it through,” he told himself. The movie’s risky ending is committed to further exploring the way Margot and Robert experienced the situation completely differently, and how the situation escalated rather than ended after the texting stopped.

If the movie’s sex scenes make a man fear ridicule, its daring third act confronts a different terror: men’s fear of being accused. Fogel takes that anxiety to extremes, putting Margot in real danger, but by the end Robert feels threatened, too, and it’s understandable when the casting of Brown (who is less threatening than readers imagine) turns the tables. The cultural conversation has evolved quickly enough to give creeps pause and respectable men whiplash, and “Cat Person” will likely prove an important catalyst for further analysis. It’s a raunchy, uncomfortable movie that no teenager wants to watch with their mom, but maybe everyone should—required viewing for the New Year.

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