Film Review: Catfight

Sandra Oh and Anne Heche star in this absurdist comedy that lands a few sharp punches but spends too much of its running time beating a dead horse.
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What is it about a catfight, beyond the supposed titillation factor, that brings all the boys to the yard? Audiences of all genders seem to derive some singular thrill from watching (or just imagining) two formidable women shed all hint of ladylike reserve and release their sheer, blinding animus towards each other. Whether it’s Bette and Joan, or Krystle and Alexis, mansions have been built banking on the public’s thirst for seeing two dames claw each other’s throats out, or at least rip off a wig and shoulder pad or two.

The title and marketing of Onur Tukel’s blunt, repetitive comedy, Catfight, lean heavily on the perceived appeal of seeing its two, more or less, put-together leading ladies—Anne Heche and Sandra Oh—engaged in bloody, knockdown, drag-out war. Lest the cynical moviegoer assume the trailer’s and poster’s strikingly savage images of the film’s stars locked in battle comprise a blatant bait-and-switch campaign to draw unsuspecting crowds into an earnest indie drama about feelings, be warned: Catfight is exactly the sideshow it claims to be. Tukel feints towards truth and insight, but really doubles and triples down on the pugilistic antics, clobbering any wisp of genuine poignancy with torrents of punching, jabbing, grappling, hair-pulling and stone-throwing.

The true bait-and-switch is more a matter of tone, which shifts abruptly from the familiar rhythms of a typical urbane New York ensemble dramedy—in the neighborhood if not the same building as a Hannah and Her Sisters—to the grimly absurdist social commentary of an authentically dour philosophical voice. Heche and Oh are, respectively, Ashley and Veronica, college friends who lost touch over the years, but, due either to the strength of their former bond or the bitter memory of their friendship’s end, have each kept the other near the front of mind, despite taking very different paths.

Ashley, pretty thin-skinned for a painter, lives a frugal life in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with her über-fussy girlfriend, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), and has continued to pursue a career as an artist, aided by her baby-elf-voiced assistant, Sally (Ariel Kavoussi), who might be a more talented artist and certainly is less tortured. Meanwhile, Veronica, a once-promising finance major, now lives a posh trophy-wife life, grossly disrespecting her maid, Donna (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and dutifully rooting for her standoffish husband, Stanley (Damien Young), as he and his very affectionate business partner (Peter Jacobson) plan to profit extravagantly from waste-disposal contracts generated by a war mounting in the Middle East. Veronica’s most, perhaps only, redeeming quality is the way she dotes on their college-bound son, Kip (Giullian Gioiello)—although when she swoops down to try to squash his artistic dreams (“Art isn’t a real thing, Kip”), we know just whom she’s referring to when she makes an example of a failed artist friend.

So, of course, Veronica, high and mighty, runs into Ashley at a party, where Ashley’s girlfriend has been hired to cater, and Ashley, who needs the money, has been hired to help. It’s a pregnant setup of interpersonal class, cultural and even sexual crisis that could ricochet in a thousand illuminating directions. However, the movie’s called Catfight—that’s what we get, and at first it’s not bad. Then, immediately after the main title bout, the film flashes forward and, with all the subtlety of a body-switching comedy, looses a rapid-fire chain of dramatic revelations that thrusts the characters and audience into completely altered circumstances, as Veronica and Ashley find their fortunes in life almost cosmically inverted.

Before the credits roll, writer, director and (not as effectively) editor Tukel provides a virtual pile-up of reversals of fortune. The pattern, along with Oh’s and Heche’s brittle performances, definitely makes the film’s bleak but not fallacious case that some friends, lovers or family are doomed to a perpetual cycle of blaming each other for their personal setbacks. And, woe is she or he inclined to judge their progress in life solely by comparison to the successes and failures of their enemies.

Between the dark clouds and fistfights, Tukel carves out spare nooks of dry comedy, delivered most ably by reliable screen vets Dylan Baker, wonderfully crisp as the oft-visited Doctor Jones, and Amy Hill, as Veronica’s off-but-not-totally Aunt Charlie, who’s named all the trees on her property, and trusts them a great deal more than she does most people. As Aunt Charlie laments, these characters inhabit “a world that doesn’t value life, just money.” Maybe it’s true that we all do; in illustrating the point, the movie is sometimes funny, but it’s not much fun. Veronica and Ashley both start out as unpleasant people—though Veronica definitely takes the cake—and over the course of the story, although both travel through pockets of growth and joy, only one of them seems really to learn anything. Those who might agree with the film’s message, that money and material wealth can amplify a jerk’s worst tendencies, won’t necessarily feel the need to watch Ash and Veronica repeatedly beat each other senseless in order to absorb that bit of horse sense.

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