In 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s short story, Cat Person, went viral after it was published in The New Yorker. The story depicts the fraught relationship of Margot, a 20 year old college student, and Robert, her 34 year old maybe-boyfriend. It’s told from Margot’s perspective, revealing her inner thoughts as she slowly realizes Robert is not the funny, flirty man she’s built up in her mind through extensive text exchanges, but an awkward, maybe even dangerous guy who uses pick-up artist techniques to keep her on the hook, at least until a night of bad, consensually questionable sex leads her to cut ties and Robert reveals his true colors. The film, adapted by Michelle Ashford and directed by Susanna Fogel (a writer on Booksmart), preserves this basic structure while stretching Cat Person into an unfathomable two hours, a solid half-hour longer than this film needs to be.
CODA breakout Emilia Jones stars as Margot, a college sophomore who works at an arthouse movie theater while studying…anthropology? Isabella Rossellini pops in as her completely superfluous professor, and while I always enjoy Isabella Rossellini, Cat Person suffers from far too much stuffing beefing up what is a pretty basic, no frills story. One night, Margot flirts with Robert (Nicholas Braun, exquisitely working tall goon vibes) out of what seems like boredom more than any real interest. But after a second incident of flirting, Robert responds with a classic neg, and Margot, sweet, stupid Margot, is intrigued. The pick-up artist vibes are present in Roupenian’s story, but what moments exist on the edge of questionable interaction in narrative form are blaring red flags in cinematic form. Robert is a classic case of “is he cute or is he just tall”, and for anyone with even a modicum of experience, everything about Robert is a screaming red flag.
But that’s the whole point, Margot isn’t really experienced. Sure, she’s had sex, probably even more sex than Robert has, but she’s still stuck in “nice girl” mode, more petrified of being seen as bitchy or difficult—or worse, demanding—than standing up for herself or listening to her inner voice, which at one point literally pleads with her to just tell Robert she changed her mind and doesn’t want to have sex anymore. Cat Person is not without good ideas and effective moments, and the Margot-on-Margot argument about halting her sexual progress with Robert is one of the better scenes in the film, enhancing the sheer frustration of watching Margot go through with something she and everyone else, except Robert, knows is a mistake.
More interesting than Margot’s relationship with Robert, though, is Margot’s friendship with Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan). The single best scene in the film is a fight between the friends, in part because it’s a spot-on depiction of how girls fight, but also because it involves two ways of moving through the world as a woman and how fundamentally difficult it is to be any kind of way as a woman. Where Margot commits herself to the ultimately folly of sleeping with Robert because she doesn’t want to be seen as difficult, et cetera, Taylor has embraced the My Favorite Murder mantra of “f-ck politeness” and encourages Margot to break it off with Robert, forget how HE feels about it. Taylor is a College Feminist and Keyboard Warrior, exposing men lurking under feminine screennames in her feminist subreddit, but she’s also the most sensible person in the film. It’s not even that Margot disagrees with Taylor, it’s that she isn’t ready to be seen as abrasive, which Taylor is.
Nice Girl vs. The Bitch is one of the oldest paradoxes facing women, and it’s far more interesting to watch Margot and Taylor hash out their differences and push against the boundaries of their assigned personas—a moment where Taylor reveals herself to someone she’s been rude to online is one of the sharpest in the film—than it is to watch Margot blow past the 50th red flag that Robert is not someone to whom she should devote time and emotional capital—let alone sexual capital. But again, Margot’s experience is very common among young women, it’s one of the reasons Cat Person went viral, so many people could relate to Margot. But I am a Taylor (called Tamara in the original short story), so I’ve never really understood Margot. F-ck politeness, girl, get out of there!
Where Cat Person really goes wrong, though, is in its final half hour. This is not a fun derangement, like Eileen, it’s just too much in a film that has already lost steam by minute 95. There is a sharp, witty comedy of modern manners in Cat Person, but it would involve excising the entire last half-hour, which kills all the ambiguity from earlier in the film. It sucks any tension and drama from the film, and defies the basic premise of Cat Person, which is that perspective matters and depends on context, but the finale of Cat Person is so literal that perspective doesn’t matter anymore, what is happening IS what is happening and there is no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding. The thorniness of Margot’s experience disappears in favor of a sweaty effort to prove her right that the story doesn’t need. The short story offers the perfect ending that justifies Margot’s creeping feeling that Robert sucks, the film just makes Margot and Robert two assholes who deserve each other. Sometimes things exist in the right medium the first time, Cat Person is certainly one such case.