THE STORY – Margot, a college student working concessions at an art house theater, meets frequent filmgoer — and rather older local — Robert, on the job. Flirtation across the counter evolves into continuous texting. As the two inch toward romance, shifts between them, awkward moments, red flags, and discomforts pile up. Margot feels both attached and reticent, as her gnawing hesitations blossom into vivid daydreams where Robert realizes his most threatening potential. As her distrust and uncertainty mount, an evening, their relationship, and possibly their lives unravel.
THE CAST – Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Fred Melamed & Isabella Rossellini
THE TEAM – Susanna Fogel (Director) & Michelle Ashford (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
Dating in the digital age sucks. There’s no way around it. You are endlessly scrolling through a slew of apps making mindless conversations with strangers, only for one of you to ghost the other a few days later and start searching for someone else. And on and on and on. So the cycle continues. That’s why it’s no surprise that we all still dream of a natural movie-esque “meet cute” above all else – a connection formed in the real world with a real person right in front of you. And that’s precisely what endears “Cat Person’s” Margot to Robert after a causal flirtation between the two at the concession stand at the movie theater where she works. He’s a bit awkward and a little aloof but averagely handsome, and there’s a semblance of a spark regardless – something that lingers in Margot’s mind for days until the two eventually do trade numbers and begin to keep up a cordial, if sometimes stilted, correspondence over texts. How do you keep that interest alive? How much can you really learn about someone from afar? How much do you choose to disclose – and how can you know what the other person really thinks in return? Getting to know someone in the 21st Century is like playing 4D chess 24/7, and you always have to be on your A-game.
And what happens when you decide after a while that this isn’t “the one”? How do you cut that cord kindly? The method most men employ is quite simple – just stop talking. But women don’t enjoy that same luxury, having to complete a mental risk assessment before even attempting cessation of this connection and then subsequently having to wrap their real feelings in artificial niceties to assuage the ego of their male partner. It’s exhausting – and entirely unfair – but something widely accepted as a part of “the culture.” It’s our job to “let ’em down easy” as a means of allowing them to maintain their dignity and also as a means of protection for ourselves, lest the man violently revolts due to this rejection. All of these aforementioned anxieties are described, discussed, and deconstructed in extensive detail in Susanna Fogel’s “Cat Person” thanks to Fogel’s discerning direction, Michelle Ashford’s scorcher of a script, and two profusely persuasive performances from Emilia Jones (the star of Sundance almost every single year now, it seems) and “Succession’s” Nicholas Braun. Rarely has a film better-immersed viewers in this mindset of the modern woman, illustrated here quite explicitly with the presence of two Margots (Jones) at times, bickering back and forth with how to respond and react to suspicious situations. And that’s why, even if “Cat Person” can’t totally stick the landing, one has to admire its direct approach to engaging with some of the most “touchy” topics of today, with primarily rewarding results. It’s not just an entertaining film, but an educational – and essential – one.
Jones is a perfect protagonist for a story such as this, possessing an honest “everywoman” quality that makes her instantly relatable for all, balancing her earnest naïveté with a budding romantic/sexual desire and almost always managing to showcase both in her interactions with Braun’s Robert simultaneously. The two have the most off-putting, unnatural chemistry imaginable, but purposely so, and more critical, realistically so, as many audience members will feel all too seen by Margot’s attempts to “wait things out” until the awkwardness is supposed to subside only to realize that Robert is still simply a little “off,” and her initial intuition was correct. It’s utterly fascinating to watch Margot’s internal monologue play out in front of us onscreen as two Emilia Jones rationalize Robert’s oddities or try to determine when it’s time to “run for the hills,” and this is most effectively explored during a supremely inelegant sex scene, which Margot consents to in order to avoid the discomfort – and potential outrage – of turning it down. The whole time, Margots re-evaluate how they got here, converse over whether they genuinely consented if it was just to satisfy Robert’s ego and/or avoid potential agitation, and, ultimately, walk each other through how to disassociate from the sex to make it easier to manage.
“Cat Person” coasts along admirably for its first two-thirds – juggling potentially troubling tonal shifts with ease and even making time for standout supporting assists from the amusing Geraldine Viswanathan and always-welcome Isabella Rossellini – but it does ultimately run out of steam slightly when it reaches the end of its source material and invents an entirely original third act. Adapting a short story is tricky, and there will always be adjustments and additions, but “Cat Person” partially forgets where its strengths lie, advancing from working within real-world anxieties to a much more overblown and exaggerated finale. It’s not a total misstep – there’s some interesting stuff in there that takes Robert’s perspective throughout the film into account, showing the disparities in how he and Margot perceived their dates – but it ultimately makes the film’s resolution more muted than anticipated. Still, it’s not enough to erase all the goodwill “Cat Person” amassed throughout its first two acts, thanks to all its astute observations on the state of dating today (and what it takes for a woman to navigate these situations safely and successfully), so even though it might not totally be as fully formed as other genre-bending feminist fables like “Promising Young Woman,” this cat’s claws are still mighty sharp.