The Cat's Meow (2001)

reviewed by
David N. Butterworth

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2002 David N. Butterworth
**1/2 (out of ****)

`The Cat's Meow' is a murder mystery-styled period piece set aboard a private yacht. The period is the mid-1920s (November 1924 to be precise) and the yacht in question--more like a small-scale replica of an ocean-going luxury liner--belongs to one William Randolph Hearst, W.R. to his friends, one of the most successful media tycoons the world has ever known (for a quick bio rent a copy of `Citizen Kane' tonight!).

The murder mystery, as it turns out, is not a fanciful contrivance in that Big Cast stuck in One Place mold (rent a copy of `Gosford Park' tomorrow night!) but a true-life event that took place over one fateful weekend, when Hearst sailed a boatload of movers and shakers out from San Pedro Harbor for a couple of days of fun and frolic and returned with one passenger less. What's intriguing about the mystery (and, to a lesser extent, Peter Bogdanovich's adaptation of Seven Peros's play about the mystery) is that the crime was never officially solved: only one of the ship's crew was ever interviewed by police; everything else was pretty much hushed up.

Among Hearst's invited partygoers is his mistress, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst, currently playing opposite the arachnid to beat at the box office, `Spider-Man'); Charlie Chaplin (yes The Charlie Chaplin–remember this is based on a true story) who, to keep things interesting, is also in love with Ms. Davies; British writer Elinor Glyn (`Ab Fab's Joanna Lumley); columnist Loella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly doing her squeaky `charmed I'm sure' bit); and a failing filmmaker who's scheming to forge a movie-producing partnership with W.R. Cary Elwes plays the ill-fated producer Thomas Ince and Edward Herrmann (from those interminable Dodge Durango TV commercials) plays Hearst with single-minded pomposity--broad strokes, big cheeks, bluff and bluster.

Dunst may be the `star' of the picture (actually, the cast is introduced in alphabetical order), but her character is one of the least interesting. Marion Davies comes across as slight; bubble-headed. There's little depth to her character and one wonders what Hearst, or Chaplin for that matter, see in her. As performed by Eddie Izzard, Chaplin is a more complex figure and therefore more deserving of our attention (although Robert Downey Jr. did a better job in Richard Attenborough's ambitious biopic from 1992). The rest of the characters--crooners and swooners, gossipmongers and scandalmongers--are a bright and animated lot but seemingly peripheral, appearing as decorations to the film's central construct, the plush plumage of over-stuffed turkeys gathering at a wake.

Director Bogdanovich, whose relationships with his leading ladies often mimic the unsettling Hearst/Davies and Davies/Chaplin dynamics, is better at establishing social mood than he is at delving into the psyches of his assembled guests. Part `The Great Gatsby,' part `The Imposters,' `The Cat's Meow' hobnobs from intriguing to farcical, from detailed to dull and back again, virtually avoiding all manner of bedroom dalliances in the process, as if it's too polite to comment on what goes on behind locked portholes. There's no pussyfooting around in establishing whodunnit, but that's probably the film's least interesting speculation.

David N. Butterworth

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