Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Cat’s Meow

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE CATS MEOW

3/10

UK/Germany/US 2001
director : Peter Bogdanovich
script : Steven Peros
cinematography : Bruno Delbonnel
lead actors : Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes
112 minutes

Remember those all-star, big-budget Agatha Christie murder-mysteries from the 70s and 80s Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, Evil Under The Sun..? Taken semi-seriously at the time, they’re just trashy TV fun these days. The Cats Meow is like one of those pictures, but without the trashy fun. Theres a murder (of sorts), but there’s no mystery which is just as well, as there’s no detective around to solve it, even if there were. Instead, the film tries to fill in some long-standing historical blanks, taking real people and real situations as a springboard for fanciful speculation Michael Apteds Agatha tried similar things with Christie herself.

This time, the facts concern a yacht trip organised by megarich publisher W R Hearst (Herrmann) off California in the early 1920s. On board: his young mistress and protg, actress Marion Davies (Dunst), her secret lover Charlie Chaplin (Izzard), swaggering producer Tom Ince (Elwes), a ditzy but ambitious journalist named Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), and expat English novelist Elinor Glyn (Lumley, also the narrator). There are wild parties, feasts, orgies, jealous arguments and a death under extremely mysterious circumstances

Indie production company Lions Gate scored an arthouse hit and an Oscar nomination with Shadow of the Vampire. Theyre clearly trying to work the oracle again with yet another speculative tale of silent movies and death, with Elwes, Izzard and Ronan Vibert popping up in both casts. Shadow didnt quite come off, but at least it was imaginatively freaky and featured some lively all-stops-out performances. Meow, however, is just dead in the water – if ex-wunderkind Peter Bogdanovich really wants to break back into the Hollywood big time, he’s going to have to try a lot harder than this.

The film looks like it could have been made any time in the last 30 years it has a flat, boring look and, worse, Bogdanovich never uses one shot when he can get away with three. If he shows us Hearst glowering with jealous rage, he shows it a hundred times: every characters emotion, every plot turn, is rammed home in the most rudimentary way imaginable. Its all so cumbersome the murder scene is an especially clumsy contrivance and this dispels any tension the script might otherwise generate.

The actors do their best to keep things watchable, with Izzard, Herrmann and Tilly given the most meat to chew and top-billed Dunst when she resists some very actorish stammering coping well with the very tricky role of Davies. As the history books (and recent TV movie RKO 281) show, the glamorous Davies really did love the much older Hearst, no matter how unlikely it seems today to audiences who won’t have a clue who these legendary Hollywood figures are, Chaplin excepted. Its easy to see why the biggest film buff among directors would be attracted to the material the obvious template is Renoirs Regle de Jeu but he can’t give it enough life to make viewers share his enthusiasm. Sad to say, Targets and The Last Picture Show seem a very long time ago – in Hollywood, Bogdanovich really is history.

27th October, 2001
(seen Oct-26-01, National Film Theatre London Film Festival)

by Neil Young