The talk of the internet in late 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story about a date gone horribly awry lit a short-lived fire of discourse surrounding gender and power dynamics. About five years later does the big-screen adaptation arrive, and while it expands details of the original text in a few compelling ways, its new third-act addition calamitously renders the whole experience a pointless, heavy-handed, misjudged exercise that relies heavier on horror tropes than any sense of humanity.
As adapted by Michelle Ashford and directed by Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), the approach is one of constant terror, conveying college student Margot’s (Emilia Jones) experience of getting to know the decade-plus-older Robert (Nicholas Braun) as one where she envisions the worst possible outcome at every turn. First meeting when he patronizes the movie-theater concession stand where she works, the two exchange numbers and begin a flirtatious texting exchange that seems to be going relatively well. When he offers to stop by her college to drop off some 7-11 nourishments, the red flags become more apparent––at least in Margot’s mind. In an expansion from the short story, she studies in the anthropology department (featuring Isabella Rossellini in a brief but dryly hilarious professor role) and invites Robert to stop into her classroom, where they are the only ones around. From a lack of communication and not asking her permission to galavant around the room or reveal what’s on his mind, Margot expects the very worst.
After a calamitous mishap occurs in the room, Margot heads home for a break and, upon returning, agrees to go on a real date with Robert. As more red flags pile up––from a messy car and apartment to a rather innocent Harrison Ford obsession to a terrible kiss to a regrettable sexual encounter punctuated by the most condescending, out-of-touch intimate talk one could imagine––Margot reluctantly decides to break things off, aided by her staunchly feminist roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan). Robert’s response, which ends the short story, is repeated here, and thus concludes the first two acts. If Cat Person could have also ended here, Fogel’s feature would’ve been a clunky but adequate adaptation, translating a sense of dread while marking a decent conversation-starter, as clearly was Roupenian’s initially intention.
Unfortunately, there is a tacked-on third act stretching the story to a two-hour mark wherein any hope for continuing to operate in a more interestingly nuanced area is thrown out the window. While certainly not subtle from the get-go, questions rattling around Margot’s mind about the dangers of forming intimacy with someone who you barely know are initially handled with a reasonable amount of grounded concern. If the film took on a more recognizable tone from the start rather than its horror-movie trappings, one could imagine an adaptation that strikes even more of a nerve. But as proven by a third act wherein these heavy-handed genre trappings become fully realized, Ashford and Fogel are keen to explore this path to its illogical but aesthetically congruous conclusion. As Robert becomes more and more unhinged, it’s as if the creators decided to adapt the most extreme thinkpiece takes after the short was first published. It’s a dissatisfying finale that boxes both characters into dramatically unfruitful corners, leaving little in the way for further conversation.
Jones, returning to Sundance two years after CODA and leading the first of two Fogel-directed films this year (ahead of a Reality Winner biopic), helps elevate the material: her uneasy glances are often more effective than any of the dialogue. Braun, operating in a different, more foreboding register than cousin Greg, handles his character’s emblem of male toxicity with aplomb, particularly in the awkwardly humorous ways his aloofness ignores Margot’s feelings, including a Harrison Ford and Stars Wars obsession that is all too relatable in today’s infantilized society. Every so often the semblance of a promising adaptation peeks beyond the surface, but ultimately it all gets swallowed in a reductive muck of misguided choices that over-explains what the short story left up for discussion.
Cat Person premiered at Sundance 2023.