In the tinseltown of today, our scandals seem little bit pedestrian: Winona Ryderıs alleged shoplifting, Michael Eisner calling Jeffrey Katzenberg a "midget," or the smear campaigns at this year's Academy Awards ceremony. But in the golden era of Hollywood, the scandals were more along the lines of dead bodies and how to get rid of them. "The Cat's Meow" (IMDb listing), based on the play by Steven Peros, dramatizes a much whispered-about piece of rumor that has been circulating around the artistic community of Los Angeles for almost 80 years now.
On one late fall weekend in 1924, film legend Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard, "Velvet Goldmine"), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly, "Bullets Over Broadway"), British Victorian novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley, "Absolutely Fabulous"), actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst, "Spider-Man") and assorted friends gathered on the yacht of powerful publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann, "Gilmore Girls") to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes, "The Princess Bride"), a pioneering movie executive who has fallen on hard times. At sea, and away from the laws and social mores of the world, the group celebrates wildly with gallons of illegal liquor and miles of illicit sex. But when the volcanically jealous Hearst gets wind of the men making moves on his mistress Davies, the weekend sours quickly, and soon turns deadly.
The picture was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, whose long and illustrious career includes "The Last Picture Show" and the depression-era "Paper Moon." It's obvious with every passing frame of film that Bogdanovich loves this period of time. He revels in the details of the age, with heaps of attention placed on the costumes and the period ornaments. But in "The Cat's Meow," Bogdanovich's vision for the era has become borderline parody. With all the flapper fashions and self-aware references, the film plays like an episode of "That 20s Show." Now, I wasn't bothered too much by this heightened interpretation in the opening of the film. I thought that Bogdanovich was using a kind of retro look at the era to make a point about the seedy underbelly carefully obscured during the times. Once the murder, and ensuing drama enter the story, the film sobers up and plays it straight from then on. This calm section of the picture, in both character and mood, felt like a better, more honest evocation of the setting. The Charleston dance and the bathtub gin didn't transport me to 1924. The human situations, such as witnessing Hearst's rampant abuse of power and Chaplin's realistic romantic dilemmas, did.
"The Cat's Meow" has a lot in common with Robert Altman's "Gosford Park." Both films maintain themes of class conflict between the ultra-privileged and those who bark at their feet, and both are period pieces that revolve around a murder. It upsets me deeply to see both films using homicides as centerpieces, then completely failing to pay them off with the gusto they employed to set up the mysteries. While "Gosford Park" failed to do anything with its painstakingly prepared Charlie Chan-esque mystery, "The Cat's Meow" has an even larger opportunity for sensational excellence with its Hollywood Babylon plot. Bogdanovich builds to the murder scene with the precision of a pro, layering on the mystery and the motivations of the party participants with relish. But, upon the arrival of the actual killing, Bogdanovich loses his sense of fun, and opts to let the horror of the event shine though. Not a really productive idea for a movie that was content with fluff up until this point. Granted, Bogdanovich's track record in recent years has been pretty spotty, but I had hoped that any man working this long in the film business would be a better judge of his own picture, and try to prevent such wild unevenness from taking over.
The casting is truly the jewel in the crown of "The Cat's Meow." Bogdanovich has filled his cast with perfect-essence imitators of the real players of this story. Edward Herrmann makes for a lucid William Randolph Hearst, employing just the right mix of paranoia and outright megalomania, to portray a man almost too powerful for his own good. Kirsten Dunst is quite fetching as Marion Davies, and her performance shows impressive depth for this ever-improving young actress. Cary Elwes does his standard sniveling routine, and Jennifer Tilly hits new heights of shrillness in her role as Louella Parsons. But the real top of the pops is Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin.
Going one step further than Robert Downey Jr.'s Oscar nominated take on Chaplin, Izzard is afforded the rare chance to form his own reading of this elusive star. Izzard plays Chaplin not as a constant clown, but as a hopeless romantic, driven in every way by his sexual appetite, and also the professional expectations that consume him. It's a complex performance in a haplessly simple movie, and Izzard rises to the challenge of interpretation with a bounce in his step and lust in his heart. It is a remarkable performance.
I didn't exactly dislike "The Cat's Meow," but I wasn't enthralled by this story to the extent that Bogdanovich clearly is. His passions get in the way of his filmmaking judgment, and like Altman's "Gosford Park," he's made a film for the suburban film fans to pat themselves on the back for seeing, not actually enjoying.
Filmfodder Grade: C-