Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person features two great performances, but its struggle to commit to a single genre means that it often undercuts its own message.
This may seem like a strange comparison, but Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person reminded me a lot of the classic mythological tale of Icarus. The Greek myth sees a boy who, upon gaining the power of flight, promptly flies too close to the sun, causing his wings to melt and, ultimately, his untimely death. He chased an unattainable goal and wound up paying heavily for it. Cat Person does an incredibly similar thing, not being content with just being a relatively simple cringe-inducing dark comedy, and so tries to be something which it seemingly deems as “greater”, a thriller in the vein of Promising Young Woman (2021), and just like Icarus, it unfortunately falls flat on its face doing so.
Based on the 2017 Kristen Roupenian short story of the same name, Cat Person follows 20-year-old college student Margot (Emilia Jones), as she finds herself briefly dating Robert (Nicholas Braun), an older man with a serious Harrison Ford fetish. As the romance builds, more and more red flags start to reveal themselves, and when things ultimately turn sour, Margot starts fearing for her life, unsure of exactly what Robert is capable of. On paper, it’s an incredibly relatable story, one that explores countless themes to do with dating as a young adult. Not being sure what you’re looking for, being completely oblivious to things that are obviously off-putting in hindsight, the never-ending assumptions you make about people – these are all pretty universal ideas, and when Cat Person is exploring them specifically, it’s great.
The film as a whole shines when it’s a snapshot of the incredibly complex dating world. These moments can be brief and ultimately low-stakes but it’s the constant fear and anxiety that turn it into these much grander events. When Cat Person feels like a PSA on what not to do when you’re on a first date or how not to treat a woman who’s just rejected you, it feels incredibly relevant and on top of things. Unfortunately, the major problem is that the film as a whole doesn’t seem content with that. It’s greedy, it wants to be this relatable, down-to-earth comedy but at the same time, it secretly, desperately wants to be a thriller, with a bit of edge to it.
There’s a few warning signs early on; namely, the constant horror-movie dream sequences or imaginary worst-case scenarios that are obviously meant to be manifestations of Margot’s anxiety, but ultimately under-cut the genuine red flags on display. How are audiences meant to learn from this when they’re spending the whole time going, “well, at least he’s not a serial killer”? Yes, the first few times it does it, it makes for some effective tension, but after the fifth time, it not only feels incredibly tired and repetitive, but it just feels like it’s doing a disservice to the message that the rest of the film is trying to hammer home, all because the film wants to have these cool, scary sequences that would work great as an out-of-context clip on TikTok.
However, that’s far from the worst of it. Where Cat Person truly lost me was in its baffling third act, where it decides to completely shift genres and abandon any prior sense of realism, all in favour of a laughable conclusion that I assume is meant to be thrilling, but lacks any kind of thrill. Again, it’s that idea of undercutting your message. Having a third act that is as bombastic and fantastical as this one in a movie that is otherwise incredibly realistic and relatable for the most part means that audiences are potentially going to be walking out of the cinema thinking, “well, it’s a good thing that never happens in real life”, when so much of this film does. People like the Robert we see for the majority of the runtime do exist, and more people should be made aware of potential red flags and what not to do as a 20-year-old navigating the dating landscape.
It’s frustrating, because for the first two acts, Cat Person is, for the most part, a fun, simple dark comedy. Emilia Jones continues to be a sensation, delivering an incredibly charming lead performance, whilst Nicholas Braun is scarily good as Robert, reminding me of all the men that I hate the most. Yet, what keeps letting Cat Person down is its constant desire to be more, whether it’s throwing in comedic side characters who do nothing except halt the pacing for some of the least funny jokes you’ve heard in your life, or throwing in completely unnecessary plot twists and dream sequences. It’s a film plagued with a serious identity crisis, and one that left me incredibly disappointed. Cat Person, you could have been so much more if you had simply just stayed in your lane.
Cat Person was released in US theaters on October 6, 2023 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand. The film will be out in UK cinemas on December 11 and on digital download January 12, 2024.