“Cat Person” shows the dangers of getting involved with a man whose idea of romance is Han Solo kissing Princess Leia in the asteroid belt. But how are you supposed to recognize such a teeny-tiny red flag? Margot (Emilia Jones) is a 20-year-old college student with a part-time job working the concession stand at a local arthouse theatre. She’s a movie fan. She meets a regular attendee, a tall, awkward guy named Robert (Nicholas Braun). He’s older than she is. Something about him intrigues her. He feels the same way about her. They have a failed first “date,” which they don’t even call a date, followed by a text-only relationship. It’s flirty banter, no dick pics, no sex talk. In person, things are different.
These early scenes of “Cat Person” are involving, subtle, extremely well-observed, and extremely well-played by Jones and Braun. From an outside perspective, it’s obvious that these two people probably need to spend a little bit more time in person to see if they like each other. Their relationship played out backwards. The texting was so exhilarating, but in person, she notices little annoying things about him (the same is probably true for him, although “Cat Person” is from Margot’s point of view). All of the scenes between Jones and Braun have the ring of truth. If you’ve dated around, you’ll recognize it. If you’ve gotten swept away by texting with someone, only to have it fall apart in person, you’ll recognize the feelings. Director Susanna Fogel has a light touch and the “fantasy” moments—where Margot tries to picture what Robert does for a living (seeing Braun as a construction worker/grave digger/office drone) or imagines Robert in therapy, talking about this smart, sexy girl he just met—are so human, so funny. It’s a great way to show how the beginning stages of a relationship happen mostly inside your head.
Then, things take a turn. The film swerves into the totally unbelievable, pulling from a grab-bag of horror/erotic thriller tropes, all of which beggar belief. It wouldn’t be so baffling if the source material—Kristen Roupenian’s short story of the same name—weren’t so famous. The ending of the short story comes at around the hour and twenty mark in the film, but “Cat Person” has about 40 minutes to go. Everything that follows is an invention by screenwriter Michelle Ashford, and not only is it cliched, but it dissipates the unnerving power of Roupenian’s story. Why invent so much wild stuff when the short story got such wide play, as anyone who was even partially alive in December 2017 will remember?
On December 4, 2017, “Cat Person” appeared in the New Yorker. In general, short stories don’t generate widespread chatter, but “Cat Person” was different. “Cat Person” went off like a bomb. Within 24 hours, it was all anyone was “talking” (i.e., tweeting) about. I struggled to think of an equivalent. Maybe Annie Proulx’s 1997 story Brokeback Mountain, also published in the New Yorker. Word of Brokeback Mountain spread, too (without social media, even more impressive). Shirley Jackson’s 1948 story The Lottery inspired an unprecedented avalanche of letters from readers. People mistook it for reportage; they didn’t seem to know it was fiction. A reader wrote in: “Are you describing a current custom?” The response to “Cat Person” was similarly confused: people thought it was a personal essay. Context is important: “Cat Person” stalked into the first months of the #MeToo movement, looping itself into the zeitgeist.
“Cat Person”‘s subject matter is not particularly revelatory (Mary McCarthy did it in The Group, Rona Jaffe did it in The Best of Everything), but it’s always current. “Cat Person” is about the thorny complications of male-female “courtship” rituals, riddled with misunderstandings, unspoken misgivings, and ignored red flags.
The film captures a little bit of the flame of the original, particularly when it allows itself to be funny. It works really well as a comedy, almost of “manners,” although manners aren’t really in sight. The way Robert is a know-it-all but a passive-aggressive one … it’s funny! Margot says her favorite film is “Spirited Away,” and she asks him if he’s seen it. He can’t just say “No.” He has to say, “I haven’t, but I know the director.” Oh, Robert. Their first kiss is really bad (how does this much older man not know how to kiss properly?) The way Margot justifies her continued involvement with a bad kisser and passive-aggressive weird guy frustrates her best friend (Geraldine Viswanathan), who’s got her own complicated situation going on in her role as mod of a feminist message board. Like I said, there’s a lot that’s funny here.
But the funniest and most insightful scene is the sex scene. Here, Fogel really captures the uneasy interiority of the original, and she does so with a bold stylistic choice, better left to be discovered than described. It works so well! The sex scene goes on forever! It’s excruciating but also hilarious. Fogel and Ashford have found a way to explore what goes on in someone’s mind during a bad hook-up, a hook-up you regret not just afterward but as it is happening. This is a very important scene, so perfectly realized it could have been a stand-alone short film. Unfortunately, “Cat Person” takes the undercurrents in the short story and makes them explicit and actual after this point, deflating the we-all-have-gone-through-exactly-this eeriness of the source.
The sex scene, though, captures exactly why everyone stopped what they were doing in December 2017 to read a short story and talk about it.
In theaters today.
Cat Person (2023)
Emilia Jonesas Margot
Nicholas Braunas Robert
Geraldine Viswanathanas Taylor
Hope Davisas Kelly
Liza Koshyas Beth
Fred Melamedas Dr. Resnick
Isabella Rossellinias Dr. Enid Zabala
Isaac Powellas Clay
Liza Colón-Zayasas Officer Elaine
- Susanna Fogel
Writer (based on the short story by)
- Kristen Roupenian
- Michelle Ashford
- Manuel Billeter
- Jacob Craycroft
- Heather McIntosh