Near the beginning of Cat Person, from Booksmart co-writer Susanna Fogel, we are shown a quote from Margaret Atwood that says, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” For the first two-thirds of Cat Person, Fogel delicately handles this balance, that fear for a man that they might be seen as a joke, and the far more terrifying reality for a woman that she could be at the center of her own horror story at any moment. That dynamic works quite well, that is, until a third act that goes off-the-rails and negates all the solid work that Fogel had done up to that point.

Based on the New Yorker story of the same name by Kristen Roupenian, which went viral in 2017, Cat Person stars Emilia Jones as Margot, a college student who works at a small repertory movie theater. One of the frequent visitors to the theater is Robert (Nicholas Braun), who is older than Margot, and is immediately awkward around her—which Margot finds endearing. Margot gives Robert her number and the two begin texting, getting closer and as their bond grows stronger, the red flags start flying.

Told entirely from Margot’s perspective, we see how she could overlook the awkwardness and uncomfortable moments in the hope that Robert could really by the idealized version she had in her head. She fantasizes about the intricacies within him that clearly must be hidden, but she also worries that this man she knows almost nothing about could be a real threat. But at least on the surface, Robert just seems to be a strange guy who doesn’t understand social cues as well as others.

Cat Person works well when it explores the expectations versus the realities of this budding relationship. Fogel plays with Margot’s fantasies in fun, unexpected ways, and throws in horror elements to show Margot’s conflicted viewpoint of her relationship with Robert. One second, he could be the slightly-off guy who walked several miles to bring her snacks at school. The next, Margot is imagining Robert choking her to death. This duality represents the unfortunate balance and worry that comes with dating. As Margaret’s dorm mate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) ironically says, “It’s so much fun being a woman!”

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Jones is a great choice for Margot, and she plays both the romantic and horror aspects of Cat Person in a very grounded, realistic way. In one scene which includes multiple Margots, she’s able to present multiple viewpoints for the situation, each of which seems like legitimate responses that this character would have in the moment. Also very good is Braun, who can be both menacing and goofy at the same time, or made to swap between both extremes. Braun is playing Robert with such uncertainty, as we feel like Margot does: there could be sometimes more under the surface, he could be a maniac, or he could just be kind of a dolt.

While the first two-thirds of Cat Person works as an effective critique of dating in the modern day, full of unpredictability and the potential for pain, it’s the final third that torpedoes this tale. Roupenian’s short story had the perfect ending which punctuated the themes that she was discussing, but this version, written by Operation Mincemeat screenwriter Michelle Ashford, keeps the story going in a way that makes this prescient story feel extremely false.

Without delving too deep into the problematic nature of the third act, Margot’s fears in the rest of the film have a very real possibility that they could come true, that a complete stranger could equally be something special or a nightmare. But in the final third, Margot’s actions become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as she begins to once again see more in Robert than is probably there. While this uncertainty of a new person works as these two are in a budding relationship, this concept falls apart near the end of the film.

Even in this final act, Cat Person attempts to explore the same type of shifting power dynamics, the excuses and rationalizations that can lead us down questionable paths, and how different experiences can be seen in entirely different ways. But this is all undercut by the ridiculousness of the character’s actions, and the choices that only make matters worse for everyone, even when they’re an attempt at self-preservation. Once the story moves away from Roupenian’s short story and Ashford’s take starts to take over, Cat Person becomes a mess of confusing character motivations, and attempts to make this story feel more grandiose and bombastic than it needs to be.

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Which is a shame since, again, Cat Person is a strong exploration of dating dynamics for much of its runtime, and both Clarke and Braun are solid in these roles that have to exist in a gray area. Fogel also manages to handle this material in a way that always makes the audience uneasy throughout, but still, it’s that final segment that harms the rest of the story, and makes the central themes and purpose of this story questionable in a way that seems more confused than thought-provoking.

Fogel and Ashford absolutely should have the freedom to expand and shift this story in ways that they find interesting for this adaptation, yet the result of that ruins the purpose of Roupenian’s original story, and tarnishes the effectiveness of their film. Audiences might have found this story underwhelming had they ended their film the way that Roupenian concluded her story, but attempting to give this more of a lofty conclusion is truly an ambitious mistake. There are great ideas within Cat Person, and when this story sticks to the meat of the original story, it’s a fascinating look at dating from a female perspective. Unfortunately, the nose dive in its intent in the final act, when Cat Person gets away from the short story, makes Cat Person two-thirds a solid film, and one-third an absurd blunder.

Rating: C

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