3 Stars
Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes
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Whodunits have always and will always be popular, especially when they involve the rich, famous and powerful. While Hollywood stars and executives from the Charleston-crazed 1920s certainly met these criteria, one man, William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), was at the top of each of those lists. Therefore, when one of Hearst’s similarly rich, famous and powerful guests dies under mysterious circumstances during a 1924 weekend cruise aboard Hearst’s yacht the “Oneida,” only to have his death swept under the proverbial rug, it sets the stage for a particularly intriguing whodunit indeed.
Director Peter Bogdanovich takes a shot at solving this now barely remembered bit of history in his Charleston-flavored unsolved mystery “The Cat’s Meow.” Bogdanovich’s “Oneida” is nearly as full of famous folks as Hearst’s original. Topping the list is Edward Herrmann as Hearst himself, or “Pops” as his sprightly young girlfriend Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) calls him. Cary Elwes oozes as the desperately schmoozing producer Thomas Ince, spying on the smoldering illicit romance between Marion and Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) and hoping to leverage that information into some sort of deal with the powerful tycoon. Finally there’s ditsy gossip queen wannabe Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), who turns out to be not so daffy after all; a perfect counterpoint to the ship’s epitome of social manners, novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley).
For all its wonderful performances, however, it’s hard to take “The Cat’s Meow” seriously. Adapted from the play by Steven Peros, Bogdanovich’s slightly cartoonish film simply seems to float along, adrift in its wonderful art direction and period soundtrack. While certainly an entertaining and intriguing film, one simply can’t get past the notion that we’re watching semi-famous actors pretending to be their more famous characters. The one notable exception to this is Izzard, whose Chaplin easily comes across as the most authentic and three dimensional character aboard the ship.
“The Cat’s Meow” does not definitively answer what happened on that mysterious night so long ago — and never claims to. But it does serve up a provocative and startling theory on the “Oneida”‘s fine china, even if this whodunit-lite is to the Mystery what the Charleston is to ballroom dancing.

Posted on April 12, 2002 in Reviews by

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