Playful and sporty, with just a small twist of the knife, “The Cat’s Meow” is good, uncomplicated fun that’s likely to disappoint those in search of weightier fare from veteran helmer Peter Bogdanovich. A semi-comedic speculation on the real reason for silent movie producer Thomas Ince’s death, a few days after weekending on the yacht of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, the ’20s-set pic is given considerable bounce by a splendid cast, led by Kirsten Dunst in an eye-opening perf as Marion Davies. In the general arena, however, this first theatrical feature by Bogdanovich in nine years reps a specialized sell, with no hooks for a younger, non-film-buff audience that won’t have a clue who most of the characters are. Pic may do marginally better in Europe, where, coincidentally, the whole thing was funded and shot.
With its literate script, good performances, well-appointed look and Hollywood-scandal subject matter, the movie would probably have had a very respectable B.O. career 30 years ago when Bogdanovich’s rep was at its peak and general auds were more receptive to such Tinseltown sagas. (In several respects, the film plays like a cross between his own musical comedy “At Long Last Love” and James Ivory’s drama “The Wild Party.”)
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But with most young movie auds barely aware of Charlie Chaplin nowadays, let alone Hearst, Davies or Ince, the potential audience for “The Cat’s Meow” is largely one of mature film buffs curious to check out what Bogdanovich is up to after a half-decade spent in the telemovie wilderness.
Bookended by B&W sections set at the Nov. 24, 1924, funeral of Ince, pic packs a considerable amount of information into the first two reels as the viewer is introduced to this long-forgotten world by Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley, oozing eccentric class). A bestselling, British-born novelist of the time, Glyn was one of the guests at the weekend birthday party of Ince, hosted by Hearst, during which the young producer was fatally struck down.
The gathering received no press coverage and, as Glyn reminds us, only one of the 14 passengers was ever questioned by the authorities. Ince officially died in his bed, at home, two days later, of “heart failure following indigestion,” and no photos or sailing logs from the weekend survive. Though on board, Glyn herself was not privy to the full story, and imparts to the viewer only “the whisper told most often.”
With those words, Glyn metaphorically pulls back the curtains on mid-’20s Hollywood — “a land just off the coast of the planet Earth” — and pic slips into color as it flashbacks to Nov. 15, with the guests arriving on Hearst’s yacht moored at San Pedro Harbor in Los Angeles.
Arriving first at the dock, but hiding in her car, is Glyn herself, who relinquishes her voiceover duties as she becomes one of the protags. She’s closely followed by the rest of the guests, all in fine backstabbing form and — like the players in an Agatha Christie whodunit (which pic often resembles) — all with problems or hidden agendas.
Behind his confident front, Ince (Cary Elwes, in a rather vanilla perf) realizes he’s losing his earlier clout as an industry pioneer and is eager to merge his operation with Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Ince also brings along his business manager (Victor Slezak) and nagging mistress (Claudia Harrison).
One of the biggest egos on the boat is Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), whose last pic, “Woman of Paris,” has bombed and who’s currently setting up a comedy, “The Gold Rush,” amid rumors that his 16-year-old mistress, the actress Lita Grey, is pregnant. More apposite to the weekend, Chaplin has also been conducting an affair with Hearst’s own mistress, Marion Davies (Dunst).
Also on board is young Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), a klutzy, starstruck movie critic on one of Hearst’s papers, and Hearst’s discreet private secretary, Joseph (Ronan Vibert).
In addition to the other guests, who include two party girls (Chiara Schoras, Claudie Blakley) and a doctor (James Laurenson), there’s a lot of info to digest in the film’s first 15 minutes, especially amid all the repartee and general bitchiness. However, it’s a measure of Bogdanovich’s handle on the protagonists, and his skill at maintaining clear character choreography, that by the time everyone sits down to watch some after-dinner dailies from Marion’s latest movie that the general dynamics are pretty clear between the sizable ensemble cast. As the weekend progresses, Chaplin’s affair with Davies is the trigger to a fatal meeting of wounded pride with desperate ambition.
Steven Peros’ script, from his own play, is hardly rich in laugh-out-loud one-liners; but the vigor of the performances and let’s-have-fun tone is infectious enough to keep a smile on the lips. By getting his cast to adopt a slightly exaggerated, but never slapstick, style of playing, Bogdanovich signals this isn’t a deadly serious analysis of Hollywood corruption. Yet the quality of his cast ensures that, as the movie progresses, the characters slowly gain depth in small layers.
Most surprising of all is Izzard as Chaplin. Though the somewhat chunky British standup comic looks nothing like the real character, Izzard captures so well the mixture of self-absorption and sheer fecklessness in Chaplin’s character that the physical mismatch hardly matters as the plot progresses. So, too, Tilly as a young, pre-gossip queen Parsons, who, in one of the best written scenes in the movie, finally casts off her squarky, dumb-belle persona and plays serious career poker with her patron.
Looking closest to their characters are the hatchet-faced Herrmann as Hearst and Dunst as Davies. The former, especially, grows into the role, largely taking a back seat during the early and middle going but coming through for a strong finish as the accident with Ince requires high-level hushing up. In a switch from the usual portrayal of Hearst as simply a controlling monster, Herrmann’s mogul is more of a sad jester, hopelessly in love with the young Davies and determined to protect her as-yet unproven talent at any cost.
That’s where Dunst’s performance is key, and it’s a challenge she meets with surprising success. Looking not unlike the real Davies, and with a splash of Jennifer Jason Leigh gravitas, Dunst gives her best performance to date amid a skilled older cast. Believable as both a spoiled ingenue and a lover to two very different men, Dunst endows a potentially lightweight character with considerable depth and sympathy. Overall, the script comes down hardest not on her or Hearst, but on Chaplin, who emerges at the end as a total self-obsessive who isn’t even aware of the extent to which he wrecks people’s lives.
Shot in rich blacks and golds, and piercing whites, by Bruno Delbonnel (who started his career on Jean-Jacques Beineix movies and most recently lensed French smash “Amelie”), pic looks succulent but not lavish.
Production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos is on the nail for Hearst’s hand-tooled yacht, and Caroline de Vivaise’s costumes have an accurate, well-laundered appearance. With exteriors in Greece standing in for California, all interiors lensed in Germany and several Brits seamlessly playing American roles, the production itself is a tribute to movie artifice.
A final payoff (in which pic switches back to color) re-establishes a lighter tone, seemingly reminding viewers that, if they want a major analysis of power and corruption, go rent “Citizen Kane.”