‘Cat Person’ Bastards Viral Story With Hairball Ending

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When Robert walks into a movie theater in a college town, Margot, who works the concession stand, clocks him as he approaches the box office. He “looks like the best friend in an Apatow movie,” she texts her boyfriend, Taylor, smiling at her cleverness. “So long, dark and…problematic?” Taylor replies.

From the beginning, Cat person is pleased with itself and telegraphs the obviousness of the broad, foreshadowing and often condescending additional material the film adds, ruining almost everything that was interesting about the source material.

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The frustrating thing is that Cat person really should and could have worked. It is based on the 2017 short story written by Kristen Roupenian, which appeared in The New Yorkers, before turning social media, the blogosphere, the literary world, group texts, brunches and toxic internet forums into a flaming inferno of discourse. If the fire hose finally extinguished one debate, it would dart to another part of the zeitgeist and wreak havoc again.

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“Cat Person”, as it appeared in The New Yorkers, was a story about a girl who dated a guy and shared her personal thoughts about their gender dynamics, power imbalances, chemistry and her feelings about sex and romance in a modern world. Is he harmless and charming? Is he actually a predator? Is it unfair to assume the latter? Shouldn’t she assume the latter? What part did she play in “leading him on”? Should the concept of “lead someone further” still exist?

Photo by Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb

They were fascinating questions that internet culture has metastasized into other tricky debates. Was the story good? Did the question of whether it was good reflect an inherent misogyny? After all, this writing style is often heralded as brilliant from a male perspective. There were questions about whether it was fiction or autofiction, and whether that mattered.

What about Margot, the narrator’s prerogative and her position of power? Maybe she was unfair to Robert. She even shamed him thick. Or did she? Maybe she was just saying what she thought, unpleasant as that may be – and that was the whole point of a story like this, after all.

It was all so very juicy. It was exhausting. It was perfect fodder for a Very Right Now movie.

Nicholas Braun, a.k.a. Cousin Greg from Successionand Emilia Jones, the endearing outbreak of CODA, were chosen to star, the epitome of exciting It Stars casting. It was set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival where it easily ranked as one of the most anticipated projects in the mountains. It was like movie greenlighting through AI. It was all just right.

And then it all went so badly wrong, especially with a finale that spirals wildly out of control from where “Cat Person,” the essay, concludes. It might be one of the most unnecessary and ridiculous endings I’ve ever seen. After steadily bastardizing everything nuanced and ambiguous about all those questions listed above – humiliating the audience with exaggerated explanations of how we should interpret events – that ending is the final dump in the litter box.

But there are things about it Cat person that actually work in the beginning.

Braun and Jones are fantastic. He’s the perfect actor to ask the question “is he clumsy and awkward at dating, or is he going to kill me” that fits Margot’s paranoia, whether necessary or ridiculous. And Jones telegraphs all the conflicting tendencies of someone who can’t resist the feeling that because she’s a young woman she can always be in danger, while always wanting to give a possibly nice guy a fair chance.

Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers) is especially wonderful as Taylor, whose extreme feminism and militant insistence on boundaries fuels Margot’s constant uneasiness, but is also required to keep her guard up and protect herself. There are several incredibly funny moments in the film’s first act, when there seems to be an ironic self-consciousness about the short story and the deluge of discussion it sparked. Far too quickly, however, that self-reference turns into didactic explanations.

Despite never appearing in it The New Yorkers story, the movie begins with a Margaret Atwood quote on screen, to make sure we understand the lesson of what we’re about to see before it starts. That’s a red flag. That this was the quote is another: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” At the time, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise if the director had jumped through the screen Porky-Pig-in-Looney-Tunes style and said, “HEY GUYS, MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT AND WHAT WE’RE HERE I’M TRYING TO SAY AGAIN!

It’s not long into the film that Margot’s (Isabella Rossellini) professor, an expert in the study of insects, delivers a not-so-subtle monologue to Robert as a threatening metaphor: Did you know, Robert, that when a male bee has sex with the queen of the colony, his penis falls off and he dies? Or that it is the females who work tirelessly to protect and keep the queen alive? Robertshe says, do you understand what is going to happen to you at the end of this movie? (OK, maybe I added that last one.)

Margot and Robert’s relationship begins over text, with great flirtatious banter. When they finally have their first date, it’s a mixed bag. She suddenly starts noticing the things she doesn’t like about him, like his nerdy obsession with Star Wars. Fleeting moments make her wonder if he’s your typical toxic son of a bitch, but then others endear him to her.

The subtext of the short story – the plight of a woman who always has to wonder if this is a “bad guy” – is made as clear as Cat person, the film, juxtaposes their interactions with bizarre, violent fantasies Margot has of Robert entrapping and attacking her. All the complications of their dynamic are instead articulated and simplified in another imaginary scene, where they undergo therapy and share their side of the story of these triggering encounters.

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Margot starts having sex for the first time, but as the night goes on she torments herself if she wants to. She debates whether now that she “started” things, she should continue with them.

The sex is terrible. She decides she doesn’t want to see him anymore. Taylor steals her phone and sends him a clear text with so many explanations. What’s left is to wait to see how he reacts: if he really was a bad guy, or just another fling that ended awkwardly and they had things figured out.

In Cat person, the film, nothing is left to interpretation. It speeds past where Roupenian ended her story and transforms the story into a full-fledged horror movie/revenge fantasy; Promising young woman through Final destination. It feels utterly inappropriate and crass, an exploitation of thorny-yet-valuable talking points in slasher entertainment that unsettles any grounding from the movie and rocket-launches into the stratosphere of implausibility.

It’s such a big disappointment, one that will undoubtedly lead to the Cat person discourse to break new ground. If only it deserved it.

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