Reasonably adequate movies are made from mediocre books or stories all the time. But once in a while, you get an adaptation so misguided that it makes even its not-so-nuanced source material look like a masterpiece. Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person—based on Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 hot-button New Yorker short story, and making its Sundance Film Festival premiere—takes everything that was admirable, or even just compelling, about Roupenian’s story and spins it into a scrambled, overloaded mess. When it comes to dating, there’s no doubt we live in confusing times. But no one needs a confused movie about dating confusion, and Cat Person’s ideas are so blurry it’s impossible to know what its goals are.
Roupenian’s “Cat Person”—about a young college student who weighs a potential romance with an opaque but somewhat abrasive older guy, toggling between trying to give him the benefit of the doubt and worrying, albeit in a jocular way, that he might be a serial killer—was a mediocre piece of fiction whose quality or lack thereof turned out to be beside the point: it spoke to so many young women that it went viral. Roupenian’s story had in its favor a certain blunt power. Its closing lines, a trail of increasingly enraged text messages, hit like a set of brass knuckles in its brute-force misogyny.
But it’s challenging to turn a compact short story into a full-length feature, and it seems Fogel (one of the cowriters of Booksmart) and screenwriter Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex) attempted to solve that problem by crafting a bizarre, write-your-own ending thriller. Emilia Jones (of the Oscar-winning CODA) is the student Margot, who, while working the concession stand of an independent movie theater, makes the fatal mistake of flirting awkwardly with a customer, Robert (Nicholas Braun); she teases him for requesting a package of Red Vines, which she says no one ever buys. He seems angered, or at least just miffed, by the joke. But he comes back later and makes his move: “Listen, concession stand girl. Why don’t you give me your number?” His request sounds almost like a command. Maybe that’s part of the turn-on.
Margot and Robert exchange flirtatious, ostensibly clever texts. He asks her which cereal she prefers. Is it Reeses’s Puffs, Fruity Pebbles, or Cap’n Crunch? She finds this adorable, and plays along, even though Robert’s obvious passive-aggressiveness leaks through the banter. But Margot keeps second-guessing his responses, the sort of thing that’s all too easy to do when you’re getting to know a new person. She doesn’t want to misread him or hurt his feelings. Her roommate Tamara (the always-appealing Geraldine Viswanathan) warns her to be careful, an entreaty Margot ignores when, via text, Robert offers to show up at the campus lab where she’s working late. He brings her some snacks; then he proceeds to explore the lab, like the entitled white man he apparently is, striding right through a door marked “Danger,” which leads to his inadvertently wreaking havoc on an ant colony that Margot’s favorite professor (played, marvelously, by Isabella Rosselllini), has been nurturing for 17 years.
This is Cat Person’s first misstep: If you have even a grain of sense, at this point you might be screaming at the screen, urging Margot to run a mile from this guy. Worse yet, he makes a playlist for her that includes the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” a beautiful, haunting song, but not one you’d send a girl you’re interested in unless you’re trying to signal that you’re a psychopath. (Notably, none of these details appear in Roupenian’s story.) Run, Margot, run! Instead, she continues texting with Robert, embroidering him into a person he clearly is not, but still wondering if he just might be a murderer. They eventually go on a real date—a Harrison Ford fanatic, he insists on choosing the movie: The Empire Strikes Back. (Run, Margot, run!) Then they go back to his place and have truly bad sex. Through it all, Margot carries on a conversation with another version of herself who stands across the room, reiterating what a terrible choice the real Margot is making. Finally, with Tamara’s help—or interference, depending how you look at it—Margot puts an end to this thing that was never a relationship in the first place.
Roupenian’s story ends shortly after that breakup-by-text, with a jarring, one-word kicker. But Fogel and Ashford stretch out the action for another half-hour, appending a protracted ending rife with anxiety, paranoia and violence. Through much of its nearly two-hour runtime, Cat Person follows the basic line of Roupenian’s story closely enough that you know you’re watching an adaptation. But the ending makes you wonder if the filmmakers really processed the story at all. It’s as if they somehow thought Roupenian’s despairing, alarmed view of the unreadability of men just didn’t have enough punch—so they wrapped up their movie with an ambiguous, inconclusive nightmare scenario that leaves you wondering if Margot, so seemingly sane, isn’t just as messed up as her would-be paramour. Cat Person seems to want to raise questions about gray areas of consent, about men who hate women but don’t seem to know it, about the complexities of functioning in the real world when we conduct so much of our lives online. But raising questions isn’t the same as wrestling with them. “Cat Person” was, among other things, a story about our inability, our unwillingness, to heed red flags—humans are, after all, creatures who want to believe in love. But Cat Person takes the easy way out. It means whatever you think it means, which is approximately the same as meaning nothing at all.