Imagine a millionaire so powerful, so influential and so controlling that he could murder a romantic rival in a jealous rage … and get away with it.
Thanks to Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Cat’s Meow,” you don’t have to imagine it, it’s up on screen. The millionaire in question is one William Randolph Hearst (“Citizen Kane” to you), newspaper mogul, and the victim … well, part of the fun is trying to figure who dies.
The scene is Hearst’s (Edward Herrmann) yacht, 1924, on a trip floating along the California coast. Some of Old Hollywood’s elite (and sycophants and wannabes) have come together for a birthday celebration of Tom Ince (Cary Elwes), a once-powerful producer hoping to get back in the spotlight with Hearst’s money.
Also in attendance is one Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard in a standout performance), who is hoping for his own conquest of Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Hearst’s mistress and struggling actress. Some other names and faces fall into the mix, but there are the main plot points that continually intersect over the getaway weekend.
Of course, the film is all conjecture; nobody has ever given a definitive account of the trip and, barring any long-lost confessionals or time travel, the mystery behind the guest’s death is likely to stay a mystery.
“The Cat’s Meow” is fun, but mainly because of the bitchiness and backstabbing of the Old Hollywood figures. Hearing Chaplin insult a girl (16 and pregnant no less) that he will eventually marry (and divorce) produces the same king of thrill from reading a particularly vicious gossip column. It’s delightful for all the wrong reasons, and you know you’re not going to stop.
But snark can only go so far, and “The Cat’s Meow” has a fatal flaw that prevents it from gelling as whole film; Dunst’s performance.
Sure, she looks the part, and she tries to get into the role, but more often than not, her flat delivery rips you out of the flow of the film and makes you remember that, yes indeed, you’re just watching a movie. She’s a talented performer and it’s possible she was too young for the part, intimidated by the more experienced actors around her, or who knows what. Regardless, it’s a casting flaw that hobbles the film and prevents it from being anything more than a fleeting fancy.
For better examples of Dunst’s range, check out Sophia Coppola’s haunting “The Virgin Suicides,” or the Watergate farce “Dick,” directed by Andrew Fleming. And for those who love a good (fictional) mystery, check out “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” Peter Weir’s film about the disappearances of three schoolgirls and their guardian.