Runtime: 118 Minutes
Director/Writer: Susanna Fogel, Kristen Roupenian (Based on the short story by)
Stars: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Isabella Rossellini, Fred Melamed, Hope Davis
By Morgan Roberts
If you have the misfortune of being a single person in the age of dating apps and where texting constitutes as “talking,” then you know the minefield you have to navigate in your quest to find “the one.” “Cat Person,” based off of the short story by Kristen Roupenian, examines the nuances and pitfalls of modern dating, but not always in the right ways.
Margot (Emilia Jones) is a college sophomore working at a movie theater frequently encountering Robert (Nicholas Braun). The two strike up a conversation which leads to them exchanging phone numbers and texting constantly. As Margot is confronted with more and more red flags, she’s stuck with an ultimatum to heed the warnings or continue down this path with Robert.
“Cat Person” certainly shows that it wants to be a social commentary on dating. Jones, coming back to Sundance after “CODA,” is good as Margot as she really taps into her assuredness and insecurities. We understand her naivety and her desires to be seen as an adult. However, we don’t have anything definitive about her motives. Sure, Robert seems nice and interested in her, but she is also not a person without ambitions, friends, or intelligence. For her age, she holds a greater self-awareness than most so her interest in Robert is befuddling.
Part of the “buy-in” issue with “Cat Person” lies within the inconsistent dramatic devices. There are moments when Margot talks to a physical representation of her own inner dialogue, but that only happens once. There are fantasy scenes which blur fact from fiction on whether or not Robert is truly as malicious as suspected. One minute he is kind, and the next sinister, before the audience is brought back to a reality which both of those sides of Robert could be true. But that is only used a few times. If these dramatic devices were used throughout the film, they could have built upon each other to craft something more substantial.
Without any background knowledge of the short story prior to the film, it was easy to understand the premise for the first two acts, even with their faults. Upfront, the story is tale as old as time. Young woman meets slightly older man and the two start a relationship that’s less like a fairytale and more like a bad life lesson. It is messy and complicated, but these are ideas that are not too foreign.
However, what occurs as the film progresses is a complete derailment from its objective which dominates the first two-thirds of the film. By the third act, we are trying to add nuance to the “Nice Guy,” which very much misses the point of the film and reality. Don’t get me wrong, there are nice men in the world, but we all know the “Nice Guy.” The guy who genuinely seems interested in your thoughts and feelings, who shows you kindness. That is until you don’t sleep with them or break things off. Then his persona goes from, “I don’t imagine my life without you,” to “I wouldn’t waste my time on an ugly slut like you.” We have seen the confrontation and deconstruction of this trope in films like “Promising Young Woman,” and more. Yet, “Cat Person” adds nothing new to its dissection of this persona. And more troublesome, in its attempt to finally deviate from the story, we approach “Not All Men” territory and that is not the message at all.
Upon further research of the source material, the ending of the short story – which concludes within the second act of the film – is a bit of a gut-punch. And from that post-screening research, it’s apparent the ending seems to be the only piece of the original text that works. It offers a shattering of the illusion of romance and men that’s more enlightening than what we actually get with the movie. Given some of the criticism seen about the original text, it’s easy understand to why changes or additions to this adaptation were needed. But the sting of the text’s original ending would have made for a more powerful blow in the finale.
Obviously, the third act couldn’t be inserted into the middle of the film, but it’s tough not to wonder what other work-arounds could have been utilized to maintain the impact of the original story. Take that as you will coming from someone who had to do post-screening research on the original text. “Cat Person” has an easily interesting premise with inventive storytelling devices that it doesn’t take advantage of enough. Unfortunately, by trying to say too much, the film loses focus and falls flat in its final act.