The Cat's Meow
Director: Peter Bogdanovich. Cast: Edward Herrmann, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly, Claudia Harrison, Claudie Blakley, Chiara Schoras, John C. Vennema, Ingrid Lacey, Ronan Vibert, Victor Slezak, James Laurenson. Screenplay: Steven Peros (based on his play).

Certain voice-over intimations at the beginning of The Cat's Meow, delivered in the interest of a prologue, make clear that the main plot's enactment of wealthy decadence, professional dissemblance, and unexpected violence are not only rooted in historical fact, but—much more interestingly—are grounded in an episode of history whose actual "facts" were never determined. In short, if an unmotivated murder is going to take place on your yacht, it is a great help for you to be William Randolph Hearst, the titanic-sized despot and gatekeeper of most of the nation's media outlets. It is an even greater help if, by the time this anecdote reaches the silver screen (a medium toward which Hearst always felt both attraction and revulsion), all of the participants who could corroborate incriminating information about you or dispute the picture's more sympathetic tonal magnanimities are long dead. The great, crushing problem with The Cat's Meow, however, is that Peter Bogdanovich's aspiring comeback picture strongly and incessantly intimates that anyone with a reason to care about this story has also, by now, spent decades moldering in their graves.

But we're still alive, and we've bought tickets (why?), so we have to put up with the amateur theatrics that Bogdanovich has slung around indifferently on the screen. The maritime setting means we are stuck with the same dozen characters for the entire two hours, during which not one of them—not Hearst, not his mistress Marion Davies, not even his amorous rival Charlie Chaplin—exudes any iota of charm or human appeal. None of them ever stops looking like an actor trying to breathe life into a garishly fussy costume and an overfamiliar persona. Cary Elwes' impersonation of Thomas Ince is so hollowly mannered and pastily uningratiating—just like his John Houseman routine in Cradle Will Rock—that it is an enormous relief when he turns out to be the murder victim. Meanwhile, casting Joanna Lumley, best known as the divinely extravagant Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous, as the arch, corpse-complexioned narrator/novelist Elinor Glyn amounts to an almost willful assault on audience pleasure. Steven Peros' script could only, in the best scenario, have resulted in a middling Altman affair (The Gingerbread Man for the Jazz Age) but in this lifeless incarnation registers a few notches below Alan Rudolph. Everyone from ingénue of the moment Kirsten Dunst to Amélie cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel seems to have been encouraged to quench their most vitalizing instincts, leading to a movie that feels like a funeral more than an hour before anyone dies. Ultimately, it is a kindness not to inquire too deeply into what exactly Bogdanovich (hitless since 1985's Mask) responded to in this chronicle of a onetime media wunderkind whose girlfriend transcended him and whose once-compelling powers escaped him. Grade: D+

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