Directed by: Onur Tukel
Premise: A painter (Anne Heche) and a high society wife (Sandra Oh) who were college roommates run into each other at a social event and come to blows. Years later, with their circumstances radically changed, they meet again.
What Works: It is rare to find a film that is simultaneously cruel and fun but Catfight is a brutally funny black comedy that recalls titles such as A Clockwork Orange and Reservoir Dogs. The story is told in three distinct parts. In the opening, a struggling painter, played by Anne Heche, runs into her estranged college roommate, played by Sandra Oh, who has become the high society wife of a war profiteer. A mix of alcohol, family troubles, and career struggles forces old resentments to the surface and the two women engage in a stairwell brawl in which Oh’s character is knocked unconscious. She wakes up from a coma years later to discover that her old life is gone and that her nemesis’ art career has taken off. This sets the women on a course toward another confrontation, which resets their fortunes again. One of the many things that Catfight does so well is to toy with the viewer’s sympathies. In the opening act of the story we are set up to despise Oh’s character and empathize with the artist played by Heche. But in Catfight’s second act those roles are reversed with Heche an awful diva who treats everyone terribly. The film confuses our point of identification and its slips quite smoothly from one character’s point of view to another. Catfight has a sardonic regard for life and for its characters but while the film is wickedly funny it does something unusual for a comedy. At its core, Catfight has vivid emotional pain. After each bout, these women suffer heartbreaking losses and actors Oh and Heche play their parts straight. The film possesses a strange mix of caustic humor and pathos appeals and Catfight creates two empathic characters caught in a ridiculous conflict. That allows the movie to take on another layer of meaning; Catfight is a political film. As she is initially presented, Sandra Oh’s character is the wife of a war profiteer and she represents the suburban red state point of view while Anne Heche’s character is a lesbian and an antiwar artist of blue state politics. The women come to blows in an ultimately unproductive conflict that is clearly intended as a metaphor of political discourse in contemporary American society.
What Doesn’t: Catfight isn’t the kind of film that’s likely to get a nuanced response from the audience. Viewers will go along with the conceit and tone of this film or they won’t. Catfight is a dark and mean spirited picture and everything it has to say about humanity and society hinges upon the conceit that we are all rotten to the core. That’s not necessarily a flaw of the movie but it is going to limit its appeal and enjoyment of Catfight will depend upon whether the viewer agrees with that sentiment or not. As part of its satirical approach, Catfight deliberately frustrates the way we enjoy movies. In many stories, an awful person is rehabilitated through suffering and discovers compassion and modesty. In Catfight, no one really becomes any wiser and they don’t achieve any deeper understandings of themselves or others. That’s central to the point of the movie but as a result Catfight doesn’t provide the catharsis that viewers typically look for in a story. Allowing for what Catfight is doing, some aspects of its satire are stretched thin. The first two portions of the story parallel each other to an absurd degree; that’s the joke but the stories of these women are so similar that it becomes very obvious what the movie is doing and the filmmakers can be charged with using irony to cover for a lack of imagination.
DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, image gallery, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Catfight is not a film for everyone but those who get it are probably going to love it. Just as Team America: World Police lampooned the politics of the 2000s, Catfight captures the absurdity of politics and culture in this decade and does so in a delightfully mean spirited way.
Episode: #651 (June 11, 2017)