Cat Person Puts Out the Short Story’s Fire with Gasoline

Movies Reviews Sundance 2023
Cat Person Puts Out the Short Story’s Fire with Gasoline

Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” experienced a journey to the center of the cultural zeitgeist that few contemporary short stories will ever be allowed to make, and even fewer would survive. Thanks to social media, Roupenian’s sharply detailed third-person-close account of a romantic encounter that goes from awkward to clumsy to upsetting became an object of me-too virality and thinkpiece scrutiny, reaching the kind of audience who might well refer to a piece of literary fiction as “your article.” Roupenian’s subsequent story collection was naturally overshadowed by its most famous piece, but now she achieves the truest form of literary canonization: Her good fiction has been turned into a bad movie.

It starts off like a satirical follow-up to the Best Picture winner CODA; at the end of that film, a character played by Emilia Jones made a break from her loving but insular family and headed off to college. Here, Jones is university sophomore Margot, bantering about the dangers and indignities of young womanhood with her roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) and approaching her part-time job at a townie rep-house movie theater with lightly sardonic humor. She performs the lightest bit of neg-flirting with Robert (Nicholas Braun), a tall customer in his thirties, and he expresses his interest awkwardly, first coming across as standoffish, then take-charge interested when he gets her phone number. Not coincidentally, we learn that his romantic model is Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

This bad imitation of Harrison Ford cool becomes a pattern as Robert and Margot embark upon a tentative, initially mostly text-based courtship. In the story (to my admittedly male eyes, anyway), Robert is an insecure sad-sack whose interest in Margot flatters her. Braun makes Robert more obviously angry, more immediately imposing – too much too soon for such a small story – but the movie nails the lonely dynamics that cause plenty of people to be better at texting than in-person relationships. Margot’s texting persona gets closer to her genuine personality, with some added vulnerability that may turn out to be unwise; director Susanna Fogel, who made an astute study of female friendship with the underseen Life Partners, smartly depicts the cocoon of sorts that can form around two people engaging in a portable flirtation.

To fill out into a two-hour feature, Cat Person must populate the world outside Margot’s head, dutifully adding an uptight RA, a gaggle of theater kids, a prodding mother (Hope Davis), and, as Margot’s professor/mentor, Isabella Rossellini importing some of her Green Porno. Taylor is the most significant expansion, and its most misguided; Viswanathan is a wonderful performer, here stuck announcing and elucidating all of the movie’s ideas about feminism, power dynamics, and consent, as Margot’s relationship with Robert threatens to go IRL. (In what unfortunately counts as an act of Herculean restraint, Taylor doesn’t actually say “age-gap discourse.”) She repeats and underlines what the movie already conveys, and the tensions of closeness Fogel so smartly depicted in Life Partners don’t have the space to develop here.

Cat Person hinges on a date between Margot and Robert that goes increasingly awry, culminating in a discomfiting sexual encounter. The scene plays as rueful dark farce, literalizing Margot’s detached experience via an ongoing conversation two Margots (one in the thick of things, one standing apart from the action) have with each other. The moments where Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford mine Margot’s interiority for laughs, including quick cutaways to imaginary outcomes, are among the movie’s best.

But the movie doesn’t sustain as a young woman’s hellscape; after a few early overtures toward satirizing campus pieties, it’s lured away by incident. On the page, the ending of “Cat Person” was so bluntly “correct” – yes, this is what probably would happen – that it lacked that crucial short-fiction lift, the ascension out of the microcosmic that allows a brief glimpse of the larger world beyond its immediate concerns. Closing as it did on a character’s text message, it was a denouement via auto-complete. Sensing that this inevitability would not offer a satisfying movie ending (not least because it would only take an hour to get there), Cat Person goes further, in fascinatingly misguided ways. Margot becomes paranoid (far from unfounded) that Robert will pose a physical threat to her, illustrating the film’s epigraph, a fudged rewording of a Margaret Atwood lecture misattributed as a direct quote. (“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”) Things… escalate, and the movie gets thorny. Its willingness to mess with the story’s overly tidy wrap-up is admirable – and also accidentally plays like a poor man’s Barbarian. That feint toward horror is followed by another toward pitch-black drama, and another toward tragedy, until the whole thing collapses in a heap.

Yet even this lengthy wobbling session is preferable to the many passages where Cat Person feeds the quiet portraiture of the story through a megaphone; the characters often come across like they’re reading (or skimming) Roupenian’s story, rather than living it. Jones, with the winsomeness of Zooey Deschanel and the wariness of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (at times she resembles both), escapes with her dignity intact. She tries to make Margot into a person, rather than an avatar for conflicted women everywhere. The movie around her inverts the power of its source material. Rather than containing relatable multitudes in a compact story ready-made for online sharing, a bigger-screen Cat Person turns paper-thin.

Director: Susanna Fogel
Writer: Michelle Ashford
Starring:: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis
Release Date: January 21, 2023 (Sundance)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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