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‘Cat Person’s runaway third act brings down palpable fears surrounding dating dynamics

The film adaptation of the 2017 New Yorker short story starring Emilia Jones forgoes interesting commentary about modern dating.

Sundance Institute

This review was originally published during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Let’s be honest about the dating world — it could be more or less brutal. With the plethora of apps and cautionary tales abound, you can see why people would exhibit some trepidation when diving into this world. The 2017 New Yorker story, ‘Cat Person.’ highlights the unfair and rather unjust expectations women have to endure when it comes to changing their minds as things don’t present themselves the way they thought. That’s the purpose of dating — however, men's potential violent tendencies when dealing with rejection have made this a risky proposition. The film adaptation of Cat Person is a scattershot observation of the ideas the short story presents and also dulls the overall message provided with a padded runtime.

We meet Margot (Emilia Jones), a 20-year-old college sophomore working at an arthouse theater that plays movies within a specific period. An older man named Robert (Nicholas Braun) comes to get concessions, and Margot makes fun of his choice of a particular candy. It seems like just a passing interaction until Robert speaks to her again (after Margot has a scenario of her joining him in watching a movie) and asks for his number. Also, Robert tells her he’s 25 (we later find out he’s 33).

From there, we’re off to the races in terms of courtship. Much of the playful, flirtatious texting happens on screen as Robert seems to say all the right things. He says he has cats, so that must mean he’s an emotionally caring person. The film has Margot entwined in this potential relationship where she first sees possibility. One of her best friends, Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan), is primarily present to remind her to keep the upper hand over patriarchal methodology and not double text. Much like a brief hint to Margot’s anthropology major, much characterization is pushed to the wayside in service of this one story.

It’s a challenge for both director Susanna Fogel and writer Michelle Ashford — to convey this issue in both a serious and comedic way. As Margot hangs out with Robert, he appears awkward and weird. Throughout the narrative in Margot’s mind, she plays these fantastic dreams where Robert shows the worst side of himself and rationalizes seeing this union through. At one point, Margot mentions she craves Fruity Pebbles, and Robert goes to two different Kroger’s to find them. He comforts her when she can’t get into a bar because of her age.

However, he shows himself as a bad kisser at that moment. This snowballs into a very awkward sex scene where Margot’s character is conversing with herself. Does she want to go through with it? Why doesn’t she say no? Is it too late to abort the mission? It’s a cringeworthy situation that many people have been in, and nothing really to be ashamed of. At this moment, like something from the short story, Margot feels all things are a bridge too far and ends this entanglement. (Well, Taylor bluntly does it with one text message).

Unfortunately, in the embers of where the original story ends, the film's third act takes a complete turn in an action-packed and somewhat suspenseful territory, which acts like a blunt force for its overall theme. It undermines a thoughtful and grounded performance from Jones, who comes off relatable as a woman who realized things haven’t worked out the way she initially thought. Margot’s character sees a lot of Robert – perhaps more than he could ever offer her.

The point of dating is to find those things out and promptly hit the eject button if they don’t fit. Fogel and Ashford’s story choice is supposed to act as an amalgamation of Margot’s fears but jettisons the enthralling points about potential relationship power dynamics. We’ve all had dating stories that fizzle out, but Cat Person forcefully commits to an idea so firmly that this dynamic's clever, ambiguous nature gets drained out.