Set in 1924, "The Cat's Meow" attempts to solve one of Hollywood's longstanding, real-life mysteries. We watch as a bevy of the rich and infamous arrive for a floating party on billionaire Hearst's private yacht. But the leisurely weekend takes a nasty turn when one of the guests turns up dead. Amid certainly suspicious circumstances, the death was never fully investigated or explained.
Until now. Enter playwright/sleuth Peros, whose screenplay suggests a highly speculative yet plausible love triangle as the fatal trigger.
The Jazz Age setting seems tailor-made for Bogdanovich, who captures the period's glitz and glamour in every frame with obvious affection. As Hearst prodigy and starlet Marion Davies, Kirsten Dunst is a beautiful social butterfly, flitting and flirting from one man's attention to another's. Caught peeping through a porthole, Dunst embodies the precociousness and heady freedom of the flapper.
Nearby, her much-older lover Hearst (Edward Herrmann) watches silently. Sadly stolid, Herrmann lets a bit of wistfulness play across his character's face. But not for long. That fleeting glimpse of Hearst's fear of losing his gossamer girl is quickly replaced with a darker visage.
Also onboard that fateful weekend are Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) and novelist Glyn (Joanna Lumley). The occasion that has brought them all together is the birthday of movie producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes). By the time the weekend is nearly over, Ince lies at death's door, succumbing not to "acute indigestion" or "heart failure" as the official reports stated but rather from a gunshot wound inflicted accidentally by a jealous lover.
Frequently "The Cat's Meow" reminds one of "Gosford Park," as Bogdanovich's camera flows from one conversational group to the next. We watch transfixed, eavesdropping with ease on the group's escalating desperation to hold onto the gaiety. Also similar to Robert Altman's murder mystery, "The Cat's Meow" may have a murder at the heart of its plot, but the movie is more concerned with the various character interactions leading up to it. And like Altman's Oscar-nominated film, Bogdanovich wrangles with a large cast of characters confined to a limited space.
Despite Herrmann's taut portrait and Dunst's effervescent one, "The Cat's Meow" has a few minor flaws. Tilly's trademark helium-voiced, airhead acting style doesn't truly fit gossip maven Parsons. It may have been perfect for "Bullets Over Broadway," but here the script leads us to believe Parsons is far more intelligent than Tilly's performance ever lets on. Oddly, Bogdanovich and Peros seem to lavish too much time and dialogue on several minor characters, giving rise to some speculation of our own about the relationships between the actress and perhaps the director or screenwriter.
But more than anything, "The Cat's Meow" serves as a reminder that Bogadanovich remains a director to be reckoned with and that Dunst is well on her way to mythic movie stardom. Only 18 when the movie was filmed (Davies would have been in her mid-20s in 1924), Dunst crafts a bewitching portrait. At first her Davies is a lovely specimen, a butterfly adorned in the gorgeous, period-perfect costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. By movie's end, Dunst has magically, effortlessly turned Davies into a complex, tormented woman. S