Cat Person Review: What Happens in the Story?

In “Cat Person,” a wickedly ambiguous Sundance conversation starter, two individuals separated by a half-generation view their relationship quite differently. The word “connection” itself is relative. Margot (Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old sophomore, works the concession booth at a repertory theatre, where she flirts with a patron who resembles a youthful Nicolas Cage (Nicholas Braun of “Succession”). Not of “Valley Girl” age.

More like Nicolas Cage from his “Wild at Heart” era, lacking the charisma. Margot describes him to her roommate as “tall, dark, and… troublesome.” Still, she is sufficiently intrigued to offer him her number. The two begin texting, sending what could be termed “confusing texts,” and the situation becomes complicated.

Susanna Fogel, co-writer of the Gen Z coming-of-age film “Booksmart,” enjoys complexity. In 2017, “Cat Person” was first published in The New Yorker as a work of fiction, but it swiftly evolved into something else. Long before anyone considered adapting it for the big screen, Kristen Roupenian’s short story struck a chord with a culture already dealing with the concepts of seduction and consent. “Cat Person” was published two months after the magazine published Ronan Farrow’s exposé on Harvey Weinstein, and just weeks before a woman accused Aziz Ansari of the “worst night of my life.”

Open to contradictory interpretations from any number of perspectives, “Cat Person” encouraged debate by openly addressing the murky regions of contemporary dating. Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford (“Masters of Sex”) make the unexpected decision to handle the material more as genre entertainment than as a standard rom-com, where the meet-cute is absent and what follows is not anyone’s concept of a date film.

Three years after “Promising Young Woman,” they’ve given us a film that is humorous at times, scary at others, and almost certainly destined to be a reference point in future conversations about courtship — a concept that has been reduced to dropping by campus with Fruity Pebbles and a Slurpee. We are far from “Say Anything,” but much closer to reality, which is saying something.


Near the beginning of the film, Fogel includes a quote from “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood that gets so close to the mark that it almost gives the picture a black eye: “Men fear that women will laugh at them.

Women fear that men will murder them. As written, the film begins to feel like an exercise in proving Atwood correct, although some may disagree with that view. Consequently, Margot is prone to “Ally McBeal”-style flashes of imagination and dread, cutting to some extreme situation — such as being attacked by Robert, the Red Vines-buying movie fan she’s been emailing — before snapping back to reality. Typically played for laughs, this comedy cliche is given a unique spin by Fogel, who used it to indulge Margot’s “what if he’s a serial killer?” fears. If the trick is repeated often enough, the audience will become suspicious.

This is a healthy way of thinking. Fogel describes “Cat Person” as the subjective experience of Margot, which involves a lack of self-awareness. Margot initiates the flirting at the concession counter, semi-stalks him from the back of the cinema, and passes over the games of hard-to-get while exchanging hundreds of text messages.

Robert is older, he understands what he wants, and he has a full-time job, all of which indicate a power disparity. But Margot’s youth and attractiveness offer her an advantage that she is only now realizing, and this guy — awkward, somewhat pitiful, and a poor kisser — is an experiment.

_Cat Person Review
_Cat Person Review

Ashford has done a commendable job of expanding the short story, adding a wild final act, and fleshing out Margot’s world with a best friend (Geraldine Viswanathan), a mother (Hope Davis), a resident assistant (Camille Imhoff), and a teacher (Isabella Rossellini) who serve as sounding boards for some of her doubts.

Rossellini in particular is a wonderful touch: he plays a professor who sees potential in Margot, who is otherwise quite self-critical, and whose knowledge of the mating behaviors of certain insects ties into the “Green Porno” concept of the art-film legend.

Margot may work in a movie theatre, but she shows no enthusiasm in the medium. Or any extracurricular activities. In many ways, her personality is still developing, but that is the purpose of college. She is in the process of figuring things out, and her sexual agency is one of the aspects being developed.

What occurs when Margot takes a vacation? How to maintain Robert’s interest without over-interesting him? She snaps a personal selfie, receives no response, and then retreats.

It is difficult for films to communicate the nuances of screen-to-screen conversation, such as the significance of micro pauses, punctuation, and pop-culture references. “Cat Person” depicts these interactions without bogging us down with the characters’ dialogue. Even more tentative are the pair’s encounters in person.

The tone of the film is light but tinged with mistrust and possible danger. In the meantime, the title refers to the mental image of Robert that Margot develops from the flurry of communications they exchange over the course of several days. When she visits his residence, she finds no trace of the two cats he had mentioned. It is a mature residence, yet weirdly immature as well. His filthy bedroom and awkward efforts at foreplay are nearly deal-breakers. Nevertheless, she does not depart.

The subsequent scenario is the most controversial portion of Roupenian’s narrative. Some readers perceived it as an assault. The script creates an intriguing device by providing Margot with an out-of-body duplicate. “Do we want to do this?” wonders her subconscious/conscience. Jones, who starred in “CODA,” can be sly at times and acerbic at others. In the actor’s hands, her character’s interesting inconsistencies come across as all the more human. She convinces herself, “It’s much simpler to just get it done.” The film’s hazardous conclusion commits to further examining how Margot and Robert saw the scenario differently and how things escalate, rather than concluding when texting ceases.

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If the film’s sex scene illustrates a man’s dread of ridicule, the film’s daring third act tackles a different worry: men’s fear of being implicated. Fogel takes this worry to absurd extremes, placing Margot in genuine danger, but in the end Robert also feels threatened, and the casting of Braun (whom readers will find less menacing than they anticipated) makes sense when the tables are turned. The cultural discourse has moved quickly enough to give creeps pause and decent men whiplash, and “Cat Person” is likely to serve as a significant impetus for additional investigation. It’s a squirming, unsettling film that no adolescent would want to watch with their mother, but it may be mandated screening for all freshmen.

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