Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story “Cat Person,” published in The New Yorker during the height of #MeToo, struck such a cultural nerve that some readers mistakenly referred to it as a nonfiction “article.”
The story of a 20-year-old college student briefly dating a bumbling yet entitled man in his mid-30s, culminating in a skin-crawlingly awkward sex scene, was instantly relatable to women who recognized the muddy power dynamics and insidious discomfort within such a relationship. Still, no one was clamoring for the succinct “Cat Person” to be transformed into a feature-length popcorn thriller — and yet here it is, directed by the “Booksmart” co-writer Susanna Fogel with a screenplay by Michelle Ashford.
The “Coda” star Emilia Jones portrays Margot, the college-age protagonist who’s working at a local movie theater concession stand when she meets Robert (Nicholas Braun, a.k.a. Cousin Greg from “Succession”). While Braun’s exact brand of awkwardness doesn’t quite match the stumbling, yet unearned air of superiority that Robert possessed in the original story, he does manage to be imposing while also looking a little lost. Jones is perfectly cast, displaying both naïve curiosity toward Robert and her own superiority over his social ineptitude. After Robert eventually asks for her number, the two enter into a nonstop virtual conversation, shown through text bubbles popping across the screen.
For the first two-thirds, “Cat Person” sticks close to the plot of the short story, and efforts to pad out its details are a mixed bag. Margot’s roommate (Geraldine Viswanathan) gets a larger role as her loyal friend and a campus activist (she moderates a feminist subreddit), constantly reminding Margot — and us — of the danger of getting too involved with a strange guy. Less successful are the overt thriller and horror elements that Fogel inserts into the plot, stylish as they may be. Isabella Rossellini plays a bizarre role as Margot’s anthropology professor, delivering a heavy-handed metaphor involving queen ants and useless male drones. As Margot grows closer to Robert, she has visions of him violently attacking her on a date, turning the ambiguous threat present in Roupenian’s writing into a one-note case of: Is he a serial killer or not?
“Cat Person” is at its strongest when it expands upon what made Roupenian’s work so resonant: Margot’s confused and, at times, brutally honest inner monologue. Her vivid imagination is what allows her to project hidden depth onto the unremarkable Robert, first through their text exchanges, and then through conversations she envisions him having with his therapist about her. (As in the story, it’s what Margot believes Robert may see in her that attracts her as much as, or perhaps more than, the man himself.)
During the sex scene — as uncomfortable and jarring as in the New Yorker piece — Margot speaks to a clone of herself standing across the room, weighing out the pros and cons of stopping Robert or getting it over with, all while enduring his clumsy attempts to act out the last porno he saw. It’s the best writing in the film, demonstrating how nuance could be added to the source material for the big screen.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for its final act. Whereas Roupenian’s short story ended in a harrowing series of texts from Robert, calling into question his true intentions but never confirming them, “Cat Person” the film trades that ambiguity for a violent living nightmare. The loose ends that made the original work compelling are inexplicably tied up, replaced by a misguided portrayal of Margot as an unreliable narrator, forced to face the consequences of her own fears. It’s true that dating in a misogynistic world is a scary prospect, and Fogel and Ashford certainly recognize all the subtle ways that fear can creep in through uncertainty. If only they trusted their audience to do the same.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. In theaters.