Sundance 2023: 'Cat Person' Belongs in the Litter Box

Directed by Susanna Fogel

Starring Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Fred Melamed, Isabella Rossellini

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

BY Rachel HoPublished Jan 26, 2023

Kristen Roupenian's short story Cat Person set off a storm of online discourse in 2017 when it was originally published in The New Yorker. Roupenian wrote the tale of Margot, a young woman who becomes involved with Robert, a man who often frequents the movie theatre where she works as a concession stand cashier. The two begin sending flirty texts and eventually sleep together, which is a less-than-satisfactory experience for Margot. After they spend the night together, Margot begins to see Robert a bit more clearly: she learns he is 14 years her senior and has been less than truthful in his representation of himself, including the fact that he is, in fact, not a cat person. 

After the story's publication, countless women shared their dating horror stories of men who became too controlling, too familiar, too intrusive — the list goes on. The focus of Cat Person was not necessarily in Robert's actions, but in how deeply uncomfortable and trapped Margot felt, which resulted in her altering her behaviour and decision-making to ensure her safety.

Director Susanna Fogel has adapted this story into a film of the same name with Emilia Jones as Margot and Nicholas Braun as Robert. It wasn't surprising that the viral story was receiving the cinematic treatment, but I did have questions about how it was going to sustain a runtime long enough to be considered a feature film. Turns out, those questions were very warranted.

The short story ends with Margot finally breaking things off with Robert. In turn, she receives a waterfall of texts that begins innocently enough ("what did I do wrong?") but eventually devolves into unhinged and belligerent language. The final beat is Robert sending one final text: "Whore." 

As this plays out in the movie, a quick check showed that I was only halfway through the film and an entire hour still remained. I can sympathize with Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford to an extent. While thought-provoking and moving, the tensile strength of Roupenian's short story is limited — there's only so much blood in that stone. 

Fogel and Ashford fill the remaining hour with a bizarre sequence of events that sees Margot acting in such a ridiculous manner that any sympathy built up for her completely dissipates. Margot and Robert engage in a conversation setting out both sides of the situation, where Robert is able to air his grievances about how Margot led him on. It's clear that Fogel and Ashford are attempting to present the story with a wider lens than just Margot's experience, but in doing so, they betray the entire point of Roupenian's story.

The reason that particular work of literary fiction picked up so much steam was because, seemingly for the first time, a generation of women's discomfort and unease was brought to the forefront. Roupenian's Cat Person encouraged us to speak up and share our stories in an effort to find community and support. Fogel and Ashford's alternate ending, on the other hand, turns Margot into an erratic drama queen.

There's another problem with Cat Person that stands alone from the issues with its ending: it's a boring movie. This isn't because of Jones and Braun, though, who are formidable in their roles, lending the appropriate amount of levity and warmth when required. In the case of Braun, he brings the creepy and cringey well. But, overall, the film feels sluggish, as if it's just trying to get through the first half so it can indulge in its misguided action-thriller-esque ending. 

For fans of the short story, revisiting Roupenian's text is a better use of time; and for those looking for a film that shows the horrors of modern dating, may I humbly suggest Mimi Cave's Fresh, a film that debuted at Sundance last year. That film about unlawful imprisonment and lopping off body parts, eating some of it and selling most of it, is somehow a more accurate interpretation of Roupenian's Cat Person than Fogel's Cat Person is, and infinitely more interesting to watch.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 to 29. Get information about online or in-person screenings at the festival's website.

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