There is no older story in the movie business than that of the bleak, uncompromising, truthful tale – a spec script, a novel, a play – that is eagerly purchased and then ruined by “Hollywood,” where various meddling hands beat the project down to a pulp, removing the honesty and bleakness that made it worth buying the first place, in favor of action, thrills, and/or a “happy ending.” It’s such a cliché that Robert Altman’s The Player parodied it over thirty years ago, culminating in one of the great endings in all of show biz satire.
But what are we to make of an independently financed and produced film adaptation of a short story that captured the attention of the nation (or, at least, its Very Online population), and proceeds to disembowel it as carelessly and thoughtlessly as any cigar-chomping studio executive? Why would the gifted director charged with bringing it to the screen turn it into the most formulaic thriller imaginable? Put simply, what the fuck did they do to Cat Person, and why?
Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story – and its full-body-cringe-inducing header image – were all but inescapable on social media circa 2017. And the first two acts of this film from Susanna Fogel (who wrote and directed the charming Life Partners) are a fairly close approximation of the events on those pages. Margot (Emilia Jones, from CODA) is a 20-year-old college student who works part-time at a movie theater, where she first bumps into an occasional patron named Robert (Succession’s Nicholas Braun). They’re cute and sort of charming together, and after a couple of slightly strained but sparking conversations, they exchange phone numbers.
The picture’s portrait of contemporary dating feels authentic, sometimes painfully so. As Margot and Robert embark on a text-chain flirtation, we come to understand the lingo and rules of this specific (to this time and technology) version of getting-to-know-you, many of them helpfully provided by Margot’s best pal Tamara (played with her customary, no-nonsense zing by Geraldine Viswanathan – though it should be noted that she’s played leads herself, and well, so it’s a little depressing to see her reduced to the tired role of the white girl’s wise bestie). The source material, and Michelle Ashford’s screenplay, are particularly attuned to the wide gulf (and resultant awkwardness) between text banter and in-person conversation, and how thin the edge can be between attraction and terror.
The strong cast sells this material well. Jones makes for a good, knotty, complicated ingénue; Cat Person debuted at Sundance this year alongside Joyland, and taken together, they make a strong case for her to play the kind of tart, brainy, yet flawed women Winona Ryder used to specialize in. And Braun, despite the (thankful!) change in body type from the original story, is especially well cast, tall and attractive enough to catch her attention, awkward enough to give her (and us) pause. (Hope Davis appears briefly but entertainingly as Margot’s oft-annoyed mother.)
The picture is smartest in its understanding of the games we play – when one chooses to reply and not, who is chasing and who is being chased, when one person has the upper hand, and when that switches. “To be honest, it’s hard to believe a grown man could be this bad at kissing,” Margot says, and that first, ugly kiss, on their first “real” date, immediately shifts the dynamic in a way that would seem to empower her, but ends up prompting an unfortunate round of sympathy sex.
What follows is one of the all-time bad sex scenes, a discomforting jumble of misplaced dirty talk, fumbling for position, and second-guessing. It’s the best single sequence in the film, and probably the most important, for a couple of reasons; first of all for Margot’s interior dialogue, pleading with herself to end it when she no longer wants to be there (“Say ‘I. Have. Changed. My. Mind.’”), which is a good thing to exist in the world, generally. But there’s also something refreshing, and borderline revolutionary, to see clumsy, bad sex in movies at all; it’s a painful reminder of what mass media, from mainstream movies to porn to romance novels, typically teaches us about how sex is supposed to be, elegantly staged and beautifully choreographed and simultaneously orgasmed. It can be that, sure, but often (especially when you’re young, or when you’re with a new partner) it is very much not.
At any rate, the worm turns quickly, and all of the things that seemed sorta sweet and charming about Robert are now just annoying. Margot tries to ghost him, unsuccessfully. The texts go from funny to sad to very very scary, making that escalation in a single sequence that is chilling in its psycho-logic and elegant in the power of its conclusion.
That scene was where the short story ended, and where the film should have as well. Its turn into thriller territory isn’t entirely out of left field; the film opens with Margaret Atwood’s famous quote about the fears of the opposite sex (“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them”), and she peppers the early stretches with nightmare visions and little flights of fear, with a couple of horror-like beats.
But the turn to thriller territory nevertheless feels clangingly false, a shift in tone and internal logic that not only derails the picture entirely, but undercuts all that’s come before. The genius of “Cat Person,” what made it the viral sensation it was, was that it was so deeply identifiable, its misreads and mistakes so common to readers of all stripes (and sexes). When Fogel transforms those moments into ingredients for a done-to-death slasher movie, it cheapens them. By the time its participants were pulling each other through pet doors and tumbling into creepy basements, I was no longer worrying about the protagonist. I was wondering what movie I was even watching anymore.
“Cat Person” opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday, and expands nationwide on October 13.