Written by: Hannah Tran | October 13th, 2023
Cat Person (Susanna Fogel, 2023) 2½ out of 4 stars.
I remember the day that “Cat Person” was published (in 2017), and I remember the days after. There was something about Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story that managed to capture a piece of the cultural climate so authentically that the internet was astonishingly overtaken by discussion. Now, that story about 20-year-old Margot’s fleeting-but-fateful relationship with an older man has been translated onto the big screen. Director Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me) delivers on many of the elements that originally made the story so impactful, such as the uneasiness of modern dating and the paranoia that women face in these situations. However, the uneven tone and confused direction make it challenging for this adaptation to find its footing.
There are many things about this adaptation to like, but the most obvious are the performances. Emilia Jones (CODA) and Nicholas Braun (Zola) are totally believable as Margot and Robert, the man she is seeing. Jones has an internal complexity and strength that balances her character’s more submissive, polite inclinations. Braun skillfully shifts from being gentle to frightening in a matter of seconds. Both feel like people you might know in real life, and they each do a steady job of grounding the more shocking moments of the story in the realness of their characters.
The tone of the film is where it begins to stumble. There are a few moments that are genuinely chilling, and these are when the movie is at its best. These parts do a good job of understanding the unsettling aura surrounding Margot and Robert’s relationship. However, the fantasy scenes which depict Margot’s fears often feel overly direct and unnecessary. While the film’s aesthetics recall the thriller genre, the tension is too often diffused by its more comedic elements, which on their own are actually enjoyable for their cringeworthiness. The confusing music choices only serve to further meddle with the tone.
This scattered atmosphere makes it challenging to discern the film’s overall trajectory. Screenwriter Michelle Ashford’s decision to escalate the climax for a completely different ending was gutsy, but it also loses some of the nuance of the original story. The lack of resolution adds to the mysterious mood, but it feels as if it goes a little too far to be plausible. While I do think it’s a welcome and necessary choice to expand the ending into a more film-friendly climax, I wish there were more cohesion between its ideas to make the ending work.
Cat Person is not an easy watch, and it shouldn’t be. It understands most of the murkiness of sexual politics that made the short story so divisive. However, the humorous discomfort and mysterious atmosphere, while well-cultivated, often clash with one another. And for a movie with a seemingly lengthy runtime (close to two hours), it never quite reaches a moment that packs the same punch as its source material.