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Cat Person Is Cringe Horror

The film adaptation of a famous New Yorker short story is appropriately grimace-inducing, but it can’t help overexplaining its terror.Photo: Rialto Pictures
Cat Person — the rare short story to legitimately go viral on the internet — was a bracingly matter-of-fact anti-romance about a college girl who starts dating an older guy who may or may not be a creep. Written by Kristen Roupenian and first published in The New Yorker in 2017 when the Me Too movement was at high tide, this work of fiction — slightly inspired by real events — sparked conversation because of its clinical look at the delicate, sometimes horrifying dance of modern courtship. Told entirely from the point of view of Margot — the university sophomore who works part-time at a movie theater where she meets Robert, a nerdy 34-year-old man who loves Red Vines — Cat Person effectively captured how the need to be desired can slide into a situation where a woman has sex without wanting it. “It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back,” Roupenian writes. That scene, and several others, are re-created nearly beat for beat in the film adaptation of Cat Person, rolling out this week in a limited theatrical release. Written by Michelle Ashford, creator of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, and directed by Susanna Fogel, writer of Booksmart and co-director of the limited series A Small Light, the movie takes what was already cringey on the pages of a prestigious magazine and makes it even more cringey by turning us into witnesses to what unfolds. It’s one thing to read the words “It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad” to describe the initial locking of lips between Margot, played onscreen by CODA’s Emilia Jones, and Robert (Nicholas Braun of Succession). It’s another thing to watch Cousin Greg use his entire mouth to practically swallow Jones’s whole brunette head. As closely as it hews to the original text, Cat Person must inevitably add padding to the narrative to fill two hours of run time. New characters appear — Margot has an anthropology professor (Isabella Rossellini) who makes blatantly metaphorical comments about the mating rituals of ants, as well as a feminist roommate (Geraldine Viswanathan of Miracle Workers) who constantly warns her against spending time with Robert. The tone of much of the film leans into full-blown horror. Every time Margot gets a text from Robert, it sounds as though an alarm bell is sounding. At one point, working in her professor’s lab late at night, she agrees over text to meet up in person. As she sorts out the arrangements, a human skeleton lies on the table in front of her, a foreboding symbol as obvious as an axe murderer holding an actual axe. Like Roupenian’s short story, this Cat Person ultimately and deliberately avoids casting either protagonist as a villain. Unfortunately, the movie has a tendency to overexplain and flagrantly telegraph its ideas otherwise, when it would be more incisive to let certain scenes and exchanges speak for themselves. It also frequently includes fantasy sequences that reveal what’s happening in Margot’s imagination, some of which carry more power than others. In the car ride during their first date, Margot has a vision of Robert choking her that initially plays like the real thing, a choice that comes across as more of a gimmick than a necessary narrative note to hit. But when Margot has an out-of-body conversation with herself during sex and debates how to potentially escape the situation, Cat Person feels honest, even brave, for exposing the discomfort, ambivalence, and misguided impulse for affirmation that can accompany an ill-advised hookup. Some of the details Ashford adds to the story provide a dash of pop culturally astute humor to what could otherwise be an entirely dark story. Robert turns out to be a total Star Wars nerd who’s obsessed with Harrison Ford and insists on taking Margot to see The Empire Strikes Back on their first date. When he sends Margot a compilation of film clips that includes the first kiss Han imposes on Leia in that sequel, it’s apparent that Robert was raised to believe nothing is more romantic than a man giving a woman “what she really wants” despite her protests. Like so much in Cat Person, this observation would carry much more weight if Margot didn’t immediately explain that subtext for the audience. The most compelling moments come from watching Braun and Jones advancing toward and retreating from each other. It doesn’t sound quite right to say they have good chemistry; it’s more accurate to say that both actors understand how to make the lack of chemistry between their characters real and tangible. Braun certainly knows how to play awkward after his years on Succession, but he injects a hint of the sinister into Robert that distinguishes this role from what he did as Greg. Jones embraces Margot’s passive qualities without making her dull; her wide eyes radiate her particular aspiration. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Jones bears a passing resemblance to Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia herself. While the short story ends on a text exchange that exposes Robert’s nastier side, the movie extends past that moment to show us what happens next. That’s where Cat Person falls flattest. The movie, naturally, wants to tell us more than a roughly 7,000-word work of short fiction can. But this examination of the personalities and emotions we project onto others forgets to leave some space unfilled. The written version of Cat Person allowed us to read between the lines, the same way we do when dissecting every phrase in a text from a crush. The film adaptation argues that there will always be ambiguity in sex and romance, but can’t quite bring itself to embrace its own uncertainty.

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