The Cat's Meow
Rated PG-13, 112 min. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Starring Victor Slezak, Ronan Vibert, Claudia Harrison, Jennifer Tilly, Joanna Lumley, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Edward Herrmann, Kirsten Dunst.
Bogdanovich's first film since 1993's The Thing Called Love is being celebrated in some quarters as a return to form for the boy wonder, and although it's a solid, engaging period mystery, it's still a far cry from his triumphal triumvirate of The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon that earned him his wings back in the early Seventies. Nicking a page from idol and friend Orson Welles' scrapbook, The Cat's Meow -- adapted from Steven Peros' play -- takes place on publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst's sumptuous yacht in the fall of 1924, and is grounded in historical fact. The Wellesian scourge (Herrmann) and mistress Marion Davies (Dunst) are throwing a floating party, and the star-studded roster of notable attendees includes the crème of Hollywoodland's finest, among them Charlie Chaplin (Izzard) -- scheming to get into Davies' knickers, Tilly's shrill Louella Parsons, producer Thomas Ince (Elwes), British novelist Elinor Glyn (Lumley, better known as one half of the Absolutely Fabulous duo), and assorted jazzbos, flappers, and society folk. From the sporadic but tart narration by Glyn, it's known from the start that there's going to be a death on board this weekend pleasure excursion. So, from the outset, the film has the feel of an Agatha Christie mystery -- it's Murder on the Hearst Express, and has about as much double-dealing and cat-and-mousery as another recent period piece: Robert Altman's Gosford Park. Bogdanovich devotes much of the film to unraveling the complex emotional schematics between Davies and Hearst, and it's here that The Cat's Meow really zings. Dunst, as the perky blond charmer who stole the ice king's heart, is a fetching imp, a natural comedienne typecast by her jealous lover into glowering and expensive historical dramas that did neither of them any good. Dunst, all rosy-cheeked dimples and sparkling eyes, is like a breath of fresh ocean breeze aboard an otherwise stifling outing; she's nothing like Dorothy Comingore's floozy Susan in Citizen Kane, and is more in line with the Davies of historical record. Herrmann, too, is something to behold, and his first entrance as Hearst has the weird kick of reality: He's not so much playing Hearst as resurrecting him, and with his bearish hulk and barely restrained imperiousness, he looks and feels like the genuine article. (You'll recognize Herrmann's face from his role as -- of all things -- the nerdish vampiric overlord of The Lost Boys.) Izzard's Chaplin is the libidinous genius you'd expect, a satyric cad with eyes for Marion and damn the consequences. Elwes, as struggling producer Ince, and Lumley, whose Glyn struggles to keep above the exasperatingly amusing, Charleston-fueled fray, both serve to advance the plotting, but accomplish little else. And Tilly's goofy, naïve harpy Parsons -- not yet Hearst's lifetime lapdog -- is just flat-out annoying; her helium giggle puts you in mind of a punctured balloon caroming off random objects, or, at best, Bride of Chucky. Bogdanovich's film works best as a frequently clever and always self-satisfied skewering of Hollywood's golden age, and as an examination of the Hearst/Davies dynamic. As a period mystery, however, it's as muddy and swirling as the actual record of that fateful, deadly weekend cruise.
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