The Cat's Meow Movie Review

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"Get two geniuses, put them together in a room, and... wow!" That was Steve Martin's self-conscious gag incorporated into the dialogue of his play Picasso at the Lapin Angile. It said, in effect, that we shouldn't give famous intellectuals more credit than they're due. They have inconsistencies like all of us. Peter Bogdanovich's bitter Hollywood pill both loves and hates its showbiz characters and geniuses, but it admonishes them in their Golden Era splendor and exists somewhat in awe of them.

Taking place aboard William Randolph Hearst's private yacht one fateful weekend in November, 1924, Bogdanovich enjoys tweaking the Citizen Kane myth built around the mighty Hearst (Edward Herrmann) and his youthful, rising-star mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). Marion, in particular, is seen as a bright-eyed, confident, canny manipulator, working her way into the power system through her own creative ingenuity. It's a far cry from Kane's bubblehead recreation. Hearst, sinking deep into his middle-aged bulk and deeper into paranoia (monitoring his guests through a series of spy gadgets), uses her as a lifeline to humankind. Without her, he'd barely be a person.

But trouble stirs on the boat, Agatha Christie-style. There's no mystery that one of the characters aboard the yacht died a mysterious death (and I'll respect Bogdanovich's request not to give away who), a controversial tabloid story that has drifted into the stuff of legend. The suspects (and victim) include down-on-his-luck producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) nipping at Hearst's coattails for work; silent movie icon Charlie Chaplin (the ever-captivating Eddie Izzard) recovering from his flop A Woman of Paris and planning his triumphant return with The Gold Rush; muckraking journalist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly, reprising her dippy-girl routine and completely selling out the astute Parsons); and scabrous British novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley, doing AbFab again).

An interesting mob, that. Bogdanovich hints at their devil may care infallibility when they continually burst into the Charleston as a way of avoiding their problems, or some behind-closed-doors, drug- and alcohol-fueled decadence. But gosh, how does he manage to make their witty parlay so insufferably dull? His old-school cinematic technique of drawn-out medium shots doesn't call attention to itself like so many young hotshot filmmakers of today, though it also never gets beyond the surface prettiness of his actors, his elegant period-piece sets, and the sing-song of their banter. Alan Rudolph found soul and heartache under the witticisms throughout Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. In comparison, The Cat's Meow feels emotionally meandering. That it was based on a play doesn't help; it feels talky and locked down where Mrs. Parker was loose and freeform.

Priding himself as an actor's director and film historian, Bogdanovich coaxes capable (if disinteresting) performances and pays tribute to movie history through his affectionate chiding of Mr. Chaplin. It's a thought-through piece of work. That doesn't mean it's substantial or even entertaining. Once trapped on the yacht, Bogdanovich revolves his characters round and round and doesn't seem to know how to build revelatory dramatic situations for them. Ince, Glyn, Parsons, and Chaplin don't seem much different by voyage's end -- the survivors might feel a little more cautious, but they're still lost in the Hollywood Maze. Put them together in a room! Nail their feet to the floor and their ideologies to functional script requirements and that wow starts to chafe. Glory fades.

Notable DVD extras include one of Sundance Channel's interesting "Anatomy of a Scene" featurettes, interviews, and even an old Charlie Chaplin short film. Bogdanovich provides his usual, sleepy commentary for the feature as well -- is this man perpetually stoned? Louella, give us the scoop.

Ball in hand.

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The Cat's Meow Rating

" Grim "

Rating: PG-13, 2002


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