Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Cat Person (2023) dir. Susanna Fogel

A declawed adaptation that gets it until it doesn't


I believe that behind the longevity of an Internet story is the applied imagination of the reader. The online folk tales in which the person is pictured or there’s a full name that can be easily doxxed to oblivion is like a respiratory infection— explosively present but temporary (God willing, at least). But the stories where we can project our experiences and conjure our own images possess a longer shelf life, allowing them to float in the space between nonfiction and imposed embellishments.

Cat Person, a short story written by Kristen Roupenian for The New Yorker, made its inflammatory rounds across social media in 2017 (a year seemingly belonging to a different era). Considering the tone and audience of most fiction pieces featured in the magazine, Cat Person shared an unexpected engagement with a contemporary audience. I attribute its popularity to the universal gray areas of dating, in which both sides are right and wrong in their romantic misfires, nervous remarks, and hours spent wondering what the next move would be. The standard decorum in the dating world, if one exists, can come through one ear, get heavily skewed and misinterpreted by different candidates competing in the same race, and then come out the other ear a different set of self-made rules. He did X because she said Y, the girl didn’t do Z because he might infer ABC, etc etc.

As with any story adaptation (or, I guess, any film in existence), Cat Persons demystifies and interprets the faceless characters. Emilia Jones plays Margot, a twenty-year-old college sophomore who works at a movie theater. Opposite is Nicholas Braun as Robert, an older man who frequents at the theater. Pinned as as Judd-Apatow-movie-handsome, Robert initially bristles at Margot’s flirty comments about his concessions purchases and movie selections before asking for her number one night. Both actors are reasonable choices and understand their characters as much as you and I do. Similarly to Zola (coincidentally, another project featuring Braun), the film operates using the story’s dialogue and details to create a picture-book version.

That would have been fine, if a bit uninspired. Directed by Susanna Fogel and adapted by Michelle Ashford (both of whom have worked on television series), Cat Person might excel in fleshing the characters out and extracting a certain atmosphere that the story might have not specified (which is a common thing in New Yorker fiction). The film opens with a famous Margaret Atwood quote (“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them”), already guiding expectations of the genre and how we start to position ourselves with Margot and Robert. As she tries to understand Robert, who is hot and cold through texting and in physical hang-outs, Margot plays out the worst-case scenarios in her head when something goes awry: Robert suffocating her when they are accidentally locked in the closet, Robert attacking her in the car when the silence feels tense and awkward, and so on and so forth. She bounces between worrying about her safety and pacifying Robert, whose insecurities start to reveal themselves. We think that she knows that there is something strange about him, but feels bad about acting upon it. Instead, her roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) is the voice of conscience, telling her exactly what we’re thinking: leave, don’t reply, don’t say sorry.

Still, the act of politeness persists and Robert technically hasn’t said or done anything wrong. As a result, her agency in the relationship becomes infected by self-doubt. One moment, she is crying because she is embarrassed from being rejected from a bar (a place that Robert walks into and almost leaves her stranded outside if it weren’t for a stranger intervening). And in another moment, she tells Taylor over the phone, “The sex will be like the kiss, clumsy and sorta maudlin. But, on the other hand, he’ll be grateful,” before heading over to his place. This characterization of Margot’s power-dependence of Robert’s actions plays pretty well to the age difference that the “nothing but a number” advocates appear to dismiss.

Generally, a lot of movies seem better when you come into them blindly. But in this case, I implore reading the original source to know why it became a big deal. The message, while sorta politicizing gendered roles in dating, is contained and completed. Reading it will also help understand why Cat Person the movie falls so very short when it decides to come up with a third act that goes beyond the end of the written piece and reverses the message, losing the very connection that audiences had with it in the beginning (including the zinger, where Margot leaves his house after the night of bad sex and realizes that she has not seen his cats when she was there).

Fogel and Ashford attempt to humanize the situation by both-siding the parties. There is a scene where we see Robert talking to a therapist, explaining why he feels weird and inept when he is around her. Which: valid! But in trying to make Robert pitiful while seeking an ounce of compassion from the audience (and then, a whole spectrum of hero-villain shenanigans in the third act), the coherence gets mucky. There is a reason why I still physically recoil when I think of Matt Dillon saving Thandiwe Newton in Crash. There is a reason why Saw and Saw X can’t happen in the same movie; Jigsaw’s battle with cancer will negate the masochistic fun in watching Saw. Human beings can be good and bad, yes, but it doesn’t work by switching on and off and expecting us to feel closer to the character.

It’s so, so, so unfortunate to think of the ending (which becomes more messy beyond Robert’s bizarro characterization) because there are moments that I had actually laughed out loud. One of my favorite needle drops has me convinced that this was meant to coincide with Britney Spears’ memoir (most likely not, but let me have this), coupled with Harrison Ford’s film characters getting the Justin Timberlake-retrospective treatment. I’m also a sucker for in-movie movie opinions, and the difference in interests might elicit a chuckle for those who know when someone is being snobby or when someone won’t admit to knowledge gaps (when Margot asks if Robert has seen Spirited Away, he replies, “I haven’t seen it but I’m familiar with the director”). But as everyone and their mother says: if your instinct spots a red flag, run.

Cat Person
dir. Susanna Fogel
120 min.

Opens Friday, 11/17 @ Alamo Drafthouse

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