More an embarrassing therapy session for Peter Bogdanovich than a fulfilled film, The Cat's Meow gives the director the unusual opportunity to both skewer and identify with the enemy of his friend. For The Cat's Meow--based on a hit play by screenwriter Steven Peros-- tells a story of William Randolph Hearst, the media magnate sent up in Bogdanovich buddy Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Embezzling Kane, the original script of which included this "episode," Bogdanovich paints Hearst (Edward Herrmann) as both a monster and a pitiable man. So in examining 61-year-old Hearst's relationship with the 27-year-old "made" starlet Marion Davies (played, oddly enough, by a teenage Kirsten Dunst), Bogdanovich seems to be exorcisng personal demons of actress girlfriends half his age, like Cybill Shepherd and the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten.
The Cat's Meow is celebrity-studded period piffle (a sort of low-budget The Cradle Will Rock) about an apparently hushed-up yachting weekend in 1924 which resulted in a mysterious death. Among those on Hearst's yacht were Davies, gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), Victorian novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) and bona fide film star Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Prominent among the rich but not so famous hangers-on is the once-groundbreaking, now faded producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes). The intrigues include Ince's pursuit of a partnership deal with Hearst, Chaplin's amorous pursuit of an ambivalent Davies, and Davies' pursuit of respect. Though the film has an Altman-esque, diffuse focus, it ultimately settles on Hearst's willingness to exploit his power to have his way. For all of this, Bogdanovich bills the story as "the whisper told most often" about what actually happened on the yacht, when most credible Hollywood histories have dismissed the hypothesis put forth here as legend.
If the premise of the film is itself questionable--simultaneously poking fun at the business of Hollywood gossip, but positively revelling in it--the execution is frequently clunky and obvious. Bogdanovich plays the same notes over and over, to no profound end. The bon mots fall flat, and the characterizations, for the most part, remain remote or unconvincing. Dunst, though probably miscast, makes Davies a sympathetic mess, affectionate for her sugar-daddy, reluctantly drawn to Chaplin, and confused as to how to make her life and career satisfactory. Elwes makes for a convincingly crafty and cynical Ince, and Tilly amuses as the opportunistic Parsons. But Herrmann comes off as a blustery cartoon of Hearst, and Lumley, whose character unneccessarily narrates, sketches an aloof, inaccessible Glyn, a pane of glass. Izzard is clearly miscast as a seedy Chaplin; like Tim Robbins, with Welles, in The Cradle Will Rock, Bogdanovich, with Chaplin, embraces scandal and underestimates the man, who he and Peros portray as asking advice on bits (for his upcoming production of The Gold Rush from everyone who will listen. Chaplin was a womanizer, no question, but his debonair grace escapes the brusque and inelegant Izzard.
It's only when the fateful gunshot is fired that the film picks up steam, but by then, it's too late. The most laughable moments of the movie come when the characters reach a height of social awkwardness and, unable to face the consequences, shout "Charleston!" and run off to the dance floor (yes, this happens more than once, and inspires a silly, ain't-we-got-fun parting shot). If this is the brilliance discourse on Hollywood Bogdanovich has to offer, I'll pass.