For all of its (much-discussed) flaws, the 2017 New Yorker short story “Cat Person” got at something fundamental about sexual relationships between women and men: There’s an undercurrent of fear in everyday life for women (used broadly here, to include a variety of feminine gender expressions) that simply isn’t present for men. Crossing the street when someone is walking behind you. Going into a parking garage with keys clutched in your fist. “Getting it over with” because you’re not sure how he’ll react if you say no. This truth is botched, like so many other things, in the film version of Cat Person, which premiered this week at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Cat Person gets it wrong so consistently, makes its points so inelegantly, and pads out the short story in such an ill-conceived way that it ends up invalidating the same concerns on which it’s built. When a cop tells the protagonist that she should stop watching murder shows, it’s not institutional indifference toward violence against women. It’s a voice of reason, as the protagonist’s own actions later prove. This is a film that includes both a therapist who appears to state the subtext as text, then vanishes, and a one-dimensional best friend of color who exists solely to drop feminist buzzwords from five years ago (Geraldine Viswanathan, who deserves better). It’s confident in its cluelessness, and not in a way that underlines that same quality in its 20-year-old heroine.
Margot (Emilia Jones) is a college sophomore majoring in anthropology (maybe — it’s never directly stated) who also has a part-time job at a movie theater that only plays problematic Hollywood films from the 1960s through the ’80s. That’s where she meets Robert (Nicholas Braun), an older man — she thinks he’s 25, ancient in her friends’ eyes — with whom she strikes up a flirty relationship via text. They get along beautifully with the phone screen as a mediator; he gives good banter, one might say. But when they finally meet in real life, Robert is awkward and evasive. Margot isn’t even sure if he really has the two cats he talked about in their texts.
The centerpiece of both the short story and the film version of Cat Person is a scene where Margot changes her mind about having sex with Robert, but goes along with the encounter anyway. She dissociates, floating out of her body and viewing herself from above. She looks silly. He looks sillier. She agreed to go to bed with him because, in her words, “he seems like he would be grateful” for the physical connection with a hot young woman like herself. But now the attention is neither validating nor enjoyable. He’s a bad kisser, and a worse lover. Oh, and he’s actually 33 (knocked down a year from the story’s 34). It’s an awkward moment, but an intensely relatable one for many people.
Unfortunately, director Susanna Fogel — best known for writing Booksmart, although Michelle Ashford (Mayfair Witches) handles script duties here — brings this experience to the screen in a flat visual style. For the majority of the scene, Margot talks to a double of herself standing on the other side of the room, an externalized internal monologue that overlays comedy onto the film’s most distressing moment. But the dialogue isn’t all that funny, which makes the whole thing just fall flat.
The same goes for the film’s horror flourishes, which are bluntly inserted and summarily dismissed. The entire concept of female hyperawareness about the danger posed by men is presented in such a studied way in Cat Person that it ends up draining all the emotion from the theme, particularly in its mind-boggling final stretch. None of the additions to the story really work: Like Viswanathan, Isabella Rossellini is mostly wasted as a professor who’s fond of talking about how male bees’ penises fall off during the act of copulation, disemboweling them in the process. And what happens in the movie after the short story ends is especially misguided. Without spoiling, Margot has quite an ax to grind with Harrison Ford.
To be fair, rolling your eyes and saying that “Star Wars is sooo boring” is something a 20-year-old would do. It’s a rite of passage to reject what came before you, even — or perhaps especially — if a guy you’re rapidly realizing isn’t as attractive as you thought makes what came before you his entire personality. The thing is, in the dynamic between Margot and Robert, it’s never clear if this is supposed to be an affectionate nod to the unearned sense of superiority inherent to 20-year-olds, or if the movie is actually rehashing Twitter discourse from the mid-to-late 2010s with a straight face. It plays like the latter.
There was a time when a crack about men not having bed frames was fresh. But culture moves very quickly in the social media age — too fast for the development, production, and release of a feature film based on a short story that’s inextricable from the online chatter around it, perhaps. Some of Cat Person’s observations about sex and dating are relatable, at least to those who are attracted to men: Who among us has not laid on some guy’s dirty sheets and watched a movie on a laptop after bad sex? But as filmmakers try to figure out how to lasso the internet and tame it for the screen, Cat Person is mostly useful as a lesson in what not to do.
Cat Person premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The film is currently seeking distribution for release.