Director Peter Bogdanovich and his cast keep on their toes, opening the closets of the rich and famous and taking their skeletons for a spin. Given the size of the personalities in the film, you might hope for a meditation on hypocrisy and the abuse of power. The Cat's Meow instead offers more of a glib showbiz satire.
Hedonist, feminist and novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley of "Absolutely Fabulous") narrates the film, offering deliciously arch observations about Hollywood mores.
Although the party is meant to celebrate the birthday of innovative studio executive Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), desperation quickly fills the Pacific air. Ince, known as "Inventor of the Western," is seeking to recover from physical and financial setbacks by soliciting a huge investment from the capricious Hearst (Edward Herrmann), who delights in making supplicants squirm.
The ship's most famous visitor is Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), who's enduring a spate of bad luck himself, including a recent flop, an out-of-control budget for The Gold Rush and a scandal over his pregnant, teenage leading lady. His only real concern for the weekend, though, is to woo Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), who's something of a bird in a gilded cage.
Screenwriter Steven Peros adapted The Cat's Meow from his stage play, and he offers an acceptable approximation of Jazz era badinage, like second-hand Noel Coward dialogue. Peros' treatment of decadent artists and tycoons is frequently canny: While the guests break marriage vows and sample contraband booze and drugs below decks, they maintain a respectable veneer above. For Hearst, "acceptable" diversions include firing a cannonball at a circus performer's abdomen or, in a bit of fore- shadowing, shooting at seagulls with handguns.
Hearst makes an imperious host, forcing the guests to do the Charleston and permitting only one drink at dinner since Prohibition is on. When Hearst takes the wheel of the yacht, his rigid posture suggests he's trying to live up to his self-image as a captain of industry. Yet Herrmann's Hearst is also a mountain of insecurities, obsessed with the opinion of others, and he keeps the yacht staterooms as bugged as the Nixon White House. Ince adds fuel to Hearst's suspicions of Charlie and Marion as a means of ingratiating himself, essentially playing Iago to Hearst's Othello.
As Hearst's rival, Izzard doesn't physically resemble Chaplin, and nor does he labor to imitate the Little Tramp mannerisms a la Robert Downey Jr. in the Chaplin biopic. But Izzard nonetheless has screen presence, requiring only the simplest of gestures to draw our attention. You accept him as a jaded movie artist with no desire to perform or be "on" for any of his shipmates but Marion.
Ultimately, though, The Cat's Meow belongs to the actresses, who are all nicely cast and costumed to fit the Jazz Age look. Dunst is rather petite and girlish compared to the real Marion Davies, but you can see how she's the center of attention and a prize for the others. She also reveals an adult woman's awareness that neither Hearst nor Chaplin are truly worthy of her.
The film's most sympathetic character may be Ince's mistress Margaret (Claudia Harrison), who becomes gradually and heartbreakingly conscious of her own marginal status. Jennifer Tilly is the butt of many of Meow's jokes as gossip columnist Louella Parsons, whom the film treats as a dimwitted chatterbox eager for a scoop yet oblivious to the actions that surround her. Witnessing an episode of violence, Tilly emits a horrified, unsettling scream that mark's Louella's loss of innocence. Later, she proves more opportunistic than anyone would expect.
Bogdanovich reasserts the flair for comedy he showed in What's Up, Doc? and the underrated Noises Off, puckishly setting the funeral scene that frames the film to a mournful version of the "Aloha" song. Meow confidently sets an early tone of light comedy -- and then stays there, without reaching a deeper level of insight. Building to the crime of passion, the pace moves like clockwork, and everything that follows is an anti-climax.
In The Cat's Meow, neither Hearst nor Chaplin find tragic stature, with the tycoon being too petty and the comedian too irresponsible. Rarely tapping emotional depths, the film flirts perilously close with the superficiality of E! "True Hollywood Stories." The players, however, are always catnip to watch.