Cat's Meow, The

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 09/15/02 12:57:22

"Not quite the Cat's Pajamas, but better than a bullet in the brain."
3 stars (Average)

Rumor has it that the ghost of 1920's movie mogul Thomas Ince still haunts the lot of Culver Studios, and that he's pissed off. Well, who can blame him? His abrupt death, which was very likely a murder (or at best, manslaughter), resulted in one of the biggest Hollywood coverups in history.

Director Peter Bogdonavich tries to unravel the mystery of Ince's death, one of the most wildly speculated events from the 1920's that continues to be debated to this day. Although Bogdonavich's interpretation of events seems plausible enough, neither the writing nor the characters are interesting enough to really make us give a crap when the final credits roll. To be sure, there are some funny scenes and witty dialogue, and some noteworthy performances all around. But it never seems to gel, nor does it allow for any other interpretations, which takes all the fun out of the mystery.

The Cat's Meow attempts to reconstruct the events that led to Ince's (Cary Elwes) death aboard William Randolph Hearst's (Edward Herrman) pleasure yacht, the Oneida, in November of 1924. Hearst threw a birthday party for Ince aboard the vessel, with Hearst's mistress in attendance - a young actress named Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). Also present were Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), who was two-timing with Marion behind the insanely jealous Hearst's back, gossip columnist Louella Parsons (a mostly annoying Jennifer Tilly), and novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) whose character also serves as the narrator of the piece.

The film portrays Hearst as a boisterous, paranoid figure - a man who hires detectives to follow Marion, spies on his guests with hidden peepholes and microphones, and uses his wealth and power to sweep all problems, including a dead guest, under the rug. Yet Herrman also plays him with enough heart that he is occasionally a sympathetic character, rather than a villain. Marion, although professing her love to Hearst, cannot seem to resist the charms of Chaplin - even though his personal life is one big scandal and he has just gotten his latest co-star, a 16 year old actress, pregnant. Meanwhile, Ince, whose studio is on the wane, desperately requires funds from Hearst to pick up his flagging industry, and will use any means, including manipulating Marion and Chaplin's affair to his advantage, to get that funding.

Throw it all into the mix and you get a weekend pleasure cruise of debauchery, excess, jealousy, and murder. The booze flows freely aboard the prohibition-era Oneida, and the party never stops - until someone gets killed, of course.

Although some fine actors are assembled here, They just can't seem to breathe enough life into these larger-than-life personalities. Hearst is more pathetic than intriguing. The chemistry between Marion and Chaplain seems forced. Dunst, though a fine actress in the teen/romantic/comedy vein, doesn't seem to quite have the maturity to pull this role off. Jennifer Tilly, as Louella Parsons, is just plain irritating and socially inept - although she can certainly swim with the sharks when it's time to make a deal with Hearst for her silence. Cary Ewles is competent as Ince, but since he's kind of a slimy character to begin with (like everyone else in the film), it's hard to view his death as a major tragedy. The bright spots here are Izzard and Lumley, who bring a bit of wit and insight to a cast of otherwise shallow and hedonistic players - although their characters are certainly no slackers in the hedonism department.

Although more of a "howdunnit" than a "whodunnit", the only thing that really makes the film interesting is that the participants were all famous people, lending the series of events a certain nostalgic romanticism. However, the story of Ince's supposed murder and subsequent coverup would probably be better fodder for a well-made documentary, rather than a dramatic murder mystery without any mystery or much drama.

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