Sundance 2023: The Atrocious, Annoying Awkwardness of 'Cat Person'
by Alex Billington
January 24, 2023
Is this what dating is really like these days?! I can't believe it. I don't want to believe it. This cannot be real. Can it…?? I'm not one to be extra negative about a film, but I must get this off my chest. Cat Person is bad, really bad. It's one of the worst films I've seen at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, not necessarily because the filmmaking is bad, but because the entire film is misguided. I didn't think they could extend the cringe and awkwardness of the original story (from New Yorker) this much and make it even more awkward to sit through. But somehow they did… It's such an uncomfortable watch. The film only features annoying idiotic cringe for two hours with absolutely nothing interesting or worthwhile to add or explore or consider or think about. I am shocked by how much of a mess this film is. It's not really about toxic masculinity, it's actually about a young woman who keeps making unbelievably stupid choices and never learning a thing from them. Her best friend is constantly trying to keep her from making mistakes, but she never listens to her… Ever.
Cat Person is directed by Susanna Fogel, bringing to life the infamous story about a young woman trying to date a slightly older man. It's her second feature as a director, after lots of TV work, and mostly writing scripts before this. Emilia Jones stars as Margot, a college student who works at a tiny art house cinema in town while not in classes. It's there she meets this frumpy, extra tall guy named Robert, played in the most awkward way by Nicholas Braun. He asks for her number and for no good reason she gives it to him. The rest of the film plays out from her fraught perspective, as she begins a text relationship with him eventually leading to a number of seriously strange and terrible dates, and one night of hooking up which is painful to watch – it's exactly when everyone will scream during this film. Everything about her experience is a mess. Yes, obviously, it's supposed to be a story from the POV of a young woman making these mistakes, unable to understand or make sense of the hundreds of red flags or anything else. This might be fine for the first half, but at some point I thought she would come to her senses and learn something from going through all this.
There are some jarring inconsistencies with the film: Is it a horror? Is it a comedy? What even is it anyway? Why do we have to sit through two hours of watching her try to date this painfully dumb guy? And by try, I really mean try, because they're both awful at everything. Wait - that's ALL there is to this film?! Seriously?! When do we see anything else? While there are some characters actually saying sane things (her best friend, even the cop) they're consistently ignored throughout. The film doesn't even have a clear idea what the hell it's trying to say adapting the otherwise amusing New Yorker article. The horror touches are added because of course, she is super scared and everything with men is horrifying. They're almost played for laughs, which is strange because the rest of it is so cringey and terrifying it's not even funny. Is this how people really act these days when it comes to dating? In my own experience, I've had a few fun texting flings, but anyone with a brain quickly learns this is all nonsense and you have to get to know someone in person. This should've been explored more, but the film draws it out way, way too long without any worthwhile lessons to offer up.
If someone watches and says "this is exactly like my experiences dating in real life" I'd wonder if they maybe need a serious reality check. None of what happens in the film is realistic – it's over-exaggerated melodrama for cinematic sake. No one should be this naive & careless, especially young women. The film fails miserably in trying to remind women not fall into this trap and go down this path like she did, because it frustratingly tries to turn the awkwardness of it all into cheesy made-for-TV horror schlock. It's unsuccessful in making us sympathize with any of the characters. Her best friend Taylor, played with spunk by the rather talented Geraldine Viswanathan, is the only one who provides intelligent, reasonable advice. But she is treated so poorly by Margot throughout the entire movie, without so much as one single moment of reconciliation or understanding by the end, I don't know how anyone is supposed to see that she's the only one being smart. It's as if the film is purposefully condescending towards intelligence, with a hope that the discomfort of the main relationship works as "entertainment" – alas it's nowhere near entertaining or enjoyable or amusing.
Discussing this film with others who also saw it at Sundance, I understand the point is to show us what it's like for a young woman to be caught up in this kind of horrifying dating experience. I get that. But I still feel the film does a terrible job in pointing this out, making the audience sit through the excruciating cringe for 120 minutes while pretending it's funny to watch. That's the problem – the filmmaker doesn't seem to know what to do with this story, and by framing every last scene through her lens of "well this is what someone young and inexperienced might do" (even if it is based on a true story?) we're forced to grapple with this tiresome awkwardness. However, instead of introducing this idea and then using the language of cinema to extend the story and give her an opportunity to grow up just a bit, it instead rides this awkward rollercoaster right into dating hell. Once again, are there people who refuse to see how bad and wrong and inappropriate everything in this is and still continue trying to make it work? How can someone ignore all these red flags? How can they make it all worse themselves and not get that? Why does the film think that's good to show?
Here is the most controversial point I will make: I also don't really think most people are going to properly understand Cat Person: The Movie. It's not really about toxic masculinity. Sure, it touches on it in just a few scenes; we all know men can quickly become assholes when provoked. However, it's mostly about how dumb and awkard and careless men are when it comes to dating and romance and girls. Yeah the guy is a weirdo but most of it is a mess of her own making. Oddly, the film seems to be about how men aren't actually all that bad, no really, and most of it from her side is over-exaggerated fears. Which is a fair point to make in a film, but not in a film based on the Cat Person article? Ummm? Why flip the story around that way? I can't even really tell if the filmmaker gets this and is just trying to make us think more. Or if she just didn't know how to adapt the story and give it a cinematic spin. Margot is the one egging things on, continuing to take an interest in him for no good reason (just WHY?!). Even when her friend tries to stop her and make her wake up, she always ignores these very valid warnings over & over. Come on folks, if you watch this film closely, it's offering up unpleasant mixed messages about how dumb everyone is - both men and women. Whatever.