MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Drama-Comedy/ Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly, Claudia Harrison, James Laurenson, Ronan Vibert, John C. Vennema, Ingrid Lacey, Victor Slezak, Chiara Schoras, Claudie Blakley, Steven Peros/Runtime: 114 minutes
It should be noted that those vile ingredients which exist in humanity and consist of obsession mixed together with more than a dash of both envy and rage were the primary instigator for a most particular incident which had occurred in the long gone time known as November, 1924 aboard a yacht owned by one of the most powerful men in America at the time: Mr. William Randolph Hearst. An incident which, in the years that have passed since the incident took place, has truly become the material that Hollywood legend loves to thrive on to the point that there are many different versions of how the events of that weekend played out. Nevertheless it is the
whisper told most often,' that manages to form the riveting spine of the movie known asThe Cat’s Meow,’ and which is helmed by film director extraordinaire Peter Bogdanovich with a truly first-rate cast along for the ride. Indeed this is a riveting creative licenses included look at what may or may not have occurred during that weekend birthday cruise held in honor of pioneer in the film industry Thomas Ince, and whose guest list made up quite the who’s-who in Hollywood and entertainment at the time. Yet even with all of this gaiety and merriment onboard, what is ultimately proven fact is that the party would come to an abrupt end due to the suspicious demise of one of the guests; a demise that has had many an individual suspect, but never be able to prove that murder most foul and a cover-up were involved somehow, someway. However amidst all the rumors and hushed whispers amongst those who spend their lives among the Hollywood Hills, there is also another single constant that runs throughout all of the stories: Never did a single individual who was onboard the party boat at the time of the “incident” ever speak, at least to where the public or the press was within earshot, about the events of that weekend, but there are still those who believe that it is quite possible that someone on board may have been able to get away with murder (and they didn’t have to watch Viola Davis’ show on ABC to do it).
The plot is as follows: The Cat’s Meow opens up as the guests for what will, hopefully turn out to be, a relaxing weekend boat ride begin to arrive at the pier. The reason for the cruise, we soon learn, is to celebrate the birthday of a man by the name of Thomas Ince. Yet even though he was once the powerhouse to be reckoned with in a much younger, and it could be argued more creative, Hollywood, we soon learn that Tom Ince, a co-founder of two major studios-one of which is still in operation to this very day, has found himself hitting a huge pothole in the middle of the road, and is not the roaring success he once was. At least that’s what can be assumed by the fact that, despite at one time being responsible for making 4 dozen movies in a single year, he is now having trouble in getting people to fund a single movie he tries to develop. Thus, despite the fact that he is supposed to be relaxing and enjoying this weekend cruise, Ince has decided to stir up a little bit of business along with this pleasure by pitching to Hearst a merger in order to combine their resources and make motion pictures together thus potentially propelling Tom back into the limelight, to say nothing of madam prominence, once again. Unfortunately for Ince, Hearst has other things to worry about rather than a potential merger. It seems that the rumor bee hive has been abuzz that his much younger mistress, a young woman by the name of Marion Davies, is being courted by none other than silent movie icon Charlie Chaplin. To that end, Hearst has decided to use the party for Tom as a pretense to bring Davies and Chaplin together to observe for himself if there are any truth to the rumors that he has been hearing. Now this may seem like overkill, but when you are the most powerful media mogul in America, and you are not only in love with your mistress, but literally obsessed with both her and just where her career goes, you’re really not about to let some frumpy comic actor take her away…..even IF he is an international film icon. Thus we see that, in the middle of what is supposed to be a relaxing and delightful weekend getaway, that paranoia completely overwhelms the party host to the point that it will soon not only hang over head like a horrific rain cloud, but also embroil the host and his guests in one of the most infamous and never resolved puzzlers to ever originate in the land of movie magic. A puzzler that Hearst will also do everything in his power to keep away from the media vultures thus ensuring that some secrets stay buried forever and ever….
Now it should be noted that the helmer of this film, Mr. Peter Bogdanovich does an absolutely magnificent job in ensuring that this film is a success in its attempt to really capture for us as an audience both the era in which the narrative is set as well as the delightful cast of characters that are involved. A cast that, it should be noted, is infinitely more intriguing due to the fact that each and every one of them really existed in the world instead of just being a group that someone made up one day thus offering up quite a solid argument in favor of that long-standing belief that the concept of what is factual can often be significantly stranger than what is make-believe. Indeed it really is intriguing to see that the excess and indulgences that many within the world of entertainment had during this era in time actually may in fact be a fierce competitor in regards to anything that people in the industry find themselves involved with, be they person or substance. Yet it should be noted that one of the most revealing moments in the entire movie is when we get a little bit of a monologue from an iconic novelist by the name of Elinor Glyn as she provides her opinion, to both the people onboard and beyond them the audience watching at home, as to what the world we call Hollywood is all about and just what kind of effect it has on the people who live and work there. I guess I should also let you know at this point in the review that Glyn is also our de-facto, albeit with a hint of reluctance, narrator and guide through this world of the powerful in the entertainment industry. Yet while there may be some of you who don’t know what to make of this, I think it is a brilliant move on the part of the filmmaker. I say this because Glyn is easily the most balanced point of view we could follow through these particularly events that occur in the film plus she possesses a, in equal measure, wry yet indecisive nature about her that helps to ground the observations she provides to the audience be it in the film or through her voice-over narration. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is her final observation that is perhaps her best. Not just because it incorporates so much by saying so little, or because it is perhaps just the right amount of potent thus making for a terrific conclusion, but it also makes you realize what a terrific job Bogdanovich did with this film, and how well he manages to bring this material quite vividly to life for us as an audience to both enjoy and potentially cherish.
Now even though everyone involved in front of the camera does do wonderful work, I still feel it should be noted that there are a trio of performances that are just a wee bit more memorable and slightly more well-done than the others. This of course starts with delightful character actor Edward Herrmann, from The Lost Boys among others, as William Randolph (W.R.) Hearst. Indeed this perhaps some of the best work that he has ever done because he manages to brilliantly ensnare the many sides of one of the most complicated men in American history. Not only that, but Herrmann manages to brilliantly bring a degree of depth to his role in this which wonderfully showcase not only the cocky arrogance of a powerful man who takes great joy in using said power (mostly for his own benefit), but also the secret vulnerability that is hidden away from 99% of the population as well. Indeed, as portrayed by Herrmann, Hearst, we quickly become aware, is a guy who can do practically anything he sets his mind to including conjuring up his own version of reality and then having all the tools necessary on standby to keep it maintained. Indeed it really truly makes for a convincing and believable performance and Herrmann is absolutely brilliant.
Next up is Kirsten Dunst who manages to answer the call and provide her own wonderful performance here as Marion Davies. Indeed, as portrayed by Dunst, Davies is a young actress who finds herself in a predicament which is by equal turns both envy worthy, but also worrisome yet who manages to skillfully weave through this predicament and the issues it can cause with both an extraordinary degree of sensibility, but also maturity that most would not come to expect from one her age. Plus, through Dunst’s delightful performance, we also get the chance to see that there are many aspects to who Davies is personality-wise. Yes there is the young woman who loves to have fun, but there is also the extremely responsible lady who continually finds herself in a world that is always turning and shifting day by day, and as a result, has to restrain herself from acting like she has the world on a string or that she is “all that”; an element that so many in that world are prone to becoming stricken with. Indeed it really is quite the immersive and persuasive turn that also has the effect of showing that Dunst can be more than just that child actress who made an impression in such films as Jumanji or Interview with the Vampire or Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.
Finally we come to a performance that managed to surprise even yours truly here with how good it turned out to be and that is none other than Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin. Indeed make no mistake: this is not as great as Robert Downey Jr was in 92’s biopic about Chaplin, but that was an all-encompassing portrait of who Chaplin was and his entire life whereas this is just a snapshot of Chaplin at a specific period of time in his life. Be that as it may be, Izzard manages to ensnare the essence of Chaplin from both a physical and a pathos perspective. Indeed make no mistake: this is not Chaplin’s on-screen alter-ego of sorts “The Little Tramp” we are seeing, but rather the Chaplin that existed when the cameras weren’t rolling. By that I mean the complex man and phenomenal yet also perfectionist of an artist, to say nothing of the roguishly charming debonair playboy and party animal that is showcased here for us. Indeed it is a wonderful little performance that, for all intents and purposes should have received a lot more attention than it tragically did.
All in all it may be brilliantly performed with a trio of powerhouse performances leading the way, and it may be meticulously presented to the point that we feel this is something that we are witnessing unfold first hand, but it should also be said that the most incredible thing about `The Cat’s Meow’ is that it is a fun little film that actually gives the audience an incredible degree of insight into both a world and a way of life that most if not 98% of us have never seen behind the silver screen so to speak. Indeed it may not be particularly fast, or action-packed by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless The Cat’s Meow is still most certainly pleasant to experience based on its dramatic merits alone, and I honestly feel that this film’s intriguing character-driven dramatic elements manage to be quite the delightful throwback to Bogadanovich’s best known film classic The Last Picture Show. Thus if you are a fan of film history as I am, you will find this film interesting and thought-provoking…..in fact much like the title says…..it really truly is the cat’s meow. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Cat’s Meow “01” a solid 3 out of 5.