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Cat Person Review: An Intriguing Story That Loses Its Focus

  • Thoughtful examination of relationships
  • Great performances from Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun
  • Extremely bizarre third act

Born from a wildly controversial short story in The New Yorker and premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, "Cat Person" is nothing less than the cinematic embodiment of chaos. Sometimes a knowing wink at dating culture, sometimes a psychological thriller worthy of a Lifetime Movie of the Week, it never seems to figure out exactly what it wants to do. What it does know, however, is that it's going to bring the drama. While Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun bring their considerable charms to a delightfully off-kilter couple, the fact that 'Cat Person," continually insists upon veering into left field makes it kind of a mess.

Margot (played by Emilia Jones, who had her breakout role in last year's Academy Award winner for best picture, "Coda") is a typical college student with a part-time job at the local movie theater. It's there that she meets Robert (Nicholas Braun of "Succession" — or, if you like, "Sky High"), an older man whose first interaction with her involves getting offended when she gently teases him for liking Red Vines. But he comes back over and over again, and the two begin to develop a rapport, so much so that they exchange phone numbers so that their flirtation can continue. From the very beginning, however, Margot is equal parts intrigued and troubled by their burgeoning relationship. She struggles to get a read on Robert, and even when she's willing on a date with him, she can't help but imagine it taking a dark turn.

Ambiguous romance

"Cat Person" is at its best when it luxuriates in the natural ambiguity that exists between these two characters. Is Robert a creep, or is he just socially awkward? Is he willfully putting Margot in uncomfortable situations, or does the fact that she already has her guard up make her more willing to interpret things in a negative way? How much kindness do you owe to someone who isn't a monster, but who you're no longer interested in? What happens when you realize halfway through a sexual encounter that you don't want to have sex anymore, but decide you'd rather soldier through it than "make a scene" and try to leave?

A good portion of "Cat Person," especially early on in the film, sits with these questions, providing a sometimes tense but not necessarily unsettling depiction of casual dating. Margot, as a young college student, grapples with so many moments where she's trying to identify red flags, while also giving Robert the benefit of the doubt. She performs mental gymnastics worthy of an Olympic medal to turn alarm bells into mere misunderstands. When he takes her to see "The Empire Strikes Back," on a date, a film she's been fairly obvious about not liking, she constructs an elaborate therapy session in her mind where Robert is actually threatened by her superior taste in cinema and fumbled the date because he was overthinking it. So even though the date was bad, the kiss was bad, and the sex was bad, she still somehow feels an emotional responsibility to treat him kindly in her rejection. (The lengths that women will go to in order to avoid upsetting a man.)

A bizarre turn

If that's all "Cat Person" was trying to do — highlight those relationships that exist on a razor's edge between okay and extremely not okay — that would be fair play. The reason why the original story captured the attention of so many readers was in part because it reflected the kind of ambiguous relationships college students often find themselves in and could relate to. But "Cat Person" has a bizarre third-act turn, which takes what was initially a stylized yet ultimately grounded in reality film and veers wildly into domestic thriller territory. This choice is neither particularly well-explained nor earned; characters make decisions designed to create the greatest amount of drama possible rather than out of any sense of narrative logic. The end result is a film that begins promisingly enough but quickly descends into a complete mess. Despite the efforts of its two lead actors, who are engaging and even charming in their respective roles, the nonsensical plot turns do them few favors. Furthermore, "Cat Person" commits the cardinal sin of underutilizing the endlessly charismatic Geraldine Viswanathan as Margot's extremely protective roommate. She can normally be relied upon to inject life and energy into every film she works on, so the fact that even she isn't really that great here is incredibly telling.

But setting aside these issues, the fundamental flaw of "Cat Person" is that in pursuit of high drama, it fails to really grapple with what made the original story in The New Yorker so compelling. The relationship is bizarre, to be sure, and full of red flags. But to make it actively threatening or dangerous dilutes its power, simplifying the narrative into a generic thriller when it would have been better off as a thought piece, asking more questions than it answered. It's a shame, then, that it squanders all the potential of its promising first act, as well as any goodwill from the audience, by stubbornly insisting on injecting histrionics into the plot.

Theatrical release information for "Cat Person" has not yet been announced.