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Cat Person

Kristen Roupenian's viral short story reaches the screen, enlisting 'CODA' lead Emilia Jones and 'Succession' star Nicholas Braun to explore the complications of modern dating.
By Sarah Ward
November 22, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
November 22, 2023
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"Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester." So starts the only thing that everyone was reading, and also talking about, in December 2017. Published by The New Yorker, Kristen Roupenian's Cat Person is a short story unparalleled in its viral fame. A piercingly matter-of-fact account of a dating nightmare, the piece of fiction became a literary and online phenomenon. Cat Person didn't just spark discourse about modern romance, relationship power dynamics, 21st-century communication, age gaps and more; it monopolised them, as fuelled by the internet, of course, and arriving as the #MeToo movement was at its early heights. Releasing it as a book, still as a 7000-word piece, came next. Now there's the film that was always bound to happen. As a movie, Cat Person can count the Twitter-to-cinema Zola as a peer in springboarding from digital phenomenon to picture palaces, and it too aims for a specific vibe: the feeling that the world experienced while first roving their eyes over the details on their phone, tablet or computer screen.

Cat Person and Zola have another glaring similarity: enlisting Succession's Nicholas Braun to infuse his Cousin Greg awkwardness into a wild tale. Here, he's the Robert that Margot encounters while "working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines", as Roupenian's story explains in its second sentence — and as filmmaker Susanna Fogel, the director of The Spy Who Dumped Me and one of Booksmart's writers, shows on-screen. Actors' performances don't exist in a vacuum for audiences. Unless you somehow missed the four-season Roy family shenanigans, plus all the rightly deserved attention around it, going into Cat Person unaware of Braun's best-known role is impossible. Self-consciousness, haplessness and discomfort are expected twice over of the man that Margot sells snacks to, then. Much follows.

With Michelle Ashford (Operation Mincemeat) adapting Roupenian's text, Cat Person still starts unfurling as readers know it will, with Robert eventually asking Margot (Emilia Jones, CODA) out, then flirty missives bouncing back and forth via SMS daily across several weeks. She's 20 and he's 33, but she doesn't clock quite the size of that age discrepancy initially. She enjoys the banter, the thrill of connecting and the buzz of being wanted. Margot has a crush, patently, complete with telling her mother (Hope Davis, Asteroid City) and stepfather (Christopher Shyer, The Night Agent) about it when she's back at home over the break. In their exchanges, Robert advises that he has two cats, too — a tidbit worthy of a title because of what it says and softens about him, and what it also screams if those felines aren't real.

Margot and Robert's rapport with their phones in their hands is natural yet often cringey, but only the latter translates whenever they meet in-person again. Still, the pair keep gravitating towards each other. Locking lips leads to "a terrible kiss, shockingly bad". The sex, which Fogel gives an out-of-body spin for Margot as a coping mechanism, is even worse. Regrets and ghosting then flow on Margot's part, while the rejected Robert floods bubbles of unwelcome anger her way. Roupenian's version is as well-known for how it ends as for everything that precedes its final word, but Fogel and Ashford had two options in making Cat Person into a movie: filling a film's running time by fleshing out its minutiae or building upon the once-in-a-decade short story, including its unforgettable ending.

Their choice: doing both, actually, with their Cat Person spending 118 minutes to relay its narrative. In comes a Harrison Ford obsession for Robert, packaged with the telling revelation that he considers a Belgian bootleg of Working Girl to be the height of cinema sophistication. Margot becomes an anthropology major with a worshipped professor (Isabella Rossellini, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On) studying ants — and the college student's roommate is now the feminist subreddit-moderating Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan, Miracle Workers), still with firmly blunt thoughts on dealing with Robert's rebuffed behaviour. In wanders a lost dog in front of their dorm, too, plus imagined sessions with a therapist (Fred Melamed, Barry) who constantly verbalises the movie's subtext, an asexual ex and a Marilyn Monroe-aping singing stint. And, in drops a third act that swings big, even for a film that wants to be a thriller, a black comedy, a cautionary tale and then a horror flick all at once.

Rossellini, Davis and Melamed lend presence more than anything else, but casting remains crucial to Cat Person's quest to recreate the sensations that swelled and swirled around the feature's source material six years back. As it incited conversation, debate, devotion and memes, Roupenian's story was an in-her-shoes read — and Jones' starring performance evokes the same reaction. With the rising Locke & Key talent playing savvy yet naive and interested yet cautious, it's easy to understand the emotions, joys, doubts and fears that cycle through Margot. Pivotally, it's easy to dive into Margot and Robert's projections, too, as Jones and Braun keeping bob towards and away from each other in a purposefully anti-chemistry match. Whether it goes smoothly, horrifically, embarrassing and something in-between, what's dating if not two people filtering their own thoughts and feelings through one another? And how often is ambiguity and clashing perceptions the outcome, as well as the realisation that what we want from and spot in the person we're seeing differs from their peek into and desires for us?

As Cat Person takes this on-screen journey, it's guilty of doing what everyone desperately wants in a relationship but never gets: explaining everything. Accordingly, not every new inclusion works, especially when new characters largely spout metaphors or imaginings just state the obvious. That said, there's ambition in this tensely shot (by Manfuel Billeter, The Gilded Age) and edited (by Jacob Craycroft, Pachinko) film's additions and expansions to the text. Most beats, tonal shifts, sidesteps into neatness and descents into horror help flesh out an examination of ill-advised choices, clumsy hookups, jarring perspectives, and life's ever-present dangers and uncertainties — and relatably at that. Fogel tackled much the same as a director on The Flight Attendant; Promising Young Woman sprang from Saltburn's Emerald Fennell instead, but consider it another influence upon this intriguing rollercoaster ride of a movie.

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