Review: Catfight

Director: Onur Tukel

Stars: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone

Onur Tukel’s comedy Catfight has a pretty strong USP. Here we have a movie in which Sandra Oh and Anne Heche, two seasoned actors with acclaimed roles in their pockets and more-or-less equal levels of celebrity, credibility and respect, beat the living crap out of each other. More than once. Why does this idea seem so provocative and alluring? It sounds like something that ought to have been beneath either of them, so the presumption is that the material is spiky enough to warrant such debasement. But why is it even debasing of either of them? In fact, is it at all?

Had this been two male actors in their mid-forties, there’d be nothing to write about. That shit happens all the time in the movies. Hell, Robert Downey Jr.’s still whizzing around the skies punching dudes as Iron Man and he’s 51. But these characters are women, everyday fallible women. Women don’t do this in cinema. Not at their age.

The very premise of Catfight is a knee in the balls of masculine expectation and puts the sexism of Hollywood right there on the table. Action cinema is all about men in their mid-forties hitting each other. Catfight presents itself as absurd and original and then asks how dare we live in a society that thinks of it as such. Women should be hitting each other all of the time! Especially women in their forties!

Set in an alternate now in order for Tukel to shoehorn in some rather blunt social commentary, Oh plays Veronica, trophy wife to a military contractor living a charmed life. She drinks too much and she’s concerned that her son’s artistic streak will lead him nowhere. The film makes it pretty clear she votes Republican. Heche plays Ashley, an NY artist who supplements her threadbare income tending bar at swanky parties. This set-up allows a chance encounter between the two; former college friends who parted ways when Ashley came out as gay and Veronica shunned her. Alcohol, pot and resentment combine in a stairwell and before the audience knows what’s happening they’re punching each other in the face. Repeatedly. Thus begins a grudge-match that extends over a number of years, allowing fortunes to shift for both women between brawls.

Tukel employs crushing WHOMPS on the soundtrack to complement the on-screen punch-ups (which are bloody and exploitative just like you wanted, you terrible person you). They’re comic punctuation marks, over-accentuating the action, and it’s a sensibility that extends to the comedy at almost all other times. Everything here is writ large, it’s broad, triumphant in its lack of nuance. Tukel wants his audience to enjoy having their noses rubbed in society’s frauds, hypocrites and sycophants.

In its opening act Catfight appears to draw its lines clearly; Veronica’s rich entitled Republican versus Ashley’s pretentious, liberal Democrat. Ashley is the more sympathetic character – just about – because of her class. But only just about, as Tukel is keen to dish out satirical banana peels for both characters to slide on, refusing to take sides entirely (though a scene later about naming trees of all things confirms what we’ve suspected). Both Veronica and Ashley are figures of ridicule, as far as he’s concerned. The view then is not that politically one side is more just than the other, but rather that class and circumstance go a long way to directing moral compasses. Therefore, in Tukel’s eyes, we are all so much cheap and corruptible garbage. And the richer you are, the shittier you are, probably. Plain and simple.

Thus, when Veronica’s life collapses and Ashley stumbles into success, our sympathies shift. By fight number two we’re on opposite sides than last time.

It’s a lumpy, ungainly film, one unlikely to gain much praise thanks to it’s non-existent subtlety. For fans of acerbic and sporadically crass cinema, this will be a pleasing curiosity, one to sit alongside Todd Solondz’ Wiener-Dog as a reassuring sign that the edges of American independent film haven’t lost their ability to raise a craven smirk. But at the same time there’s enough wit and savvy here to raise this above the trash-sniffing crud exemplified last year by The Greasy Strangler, for instance.  Part of what elevates Catfight are the performances from Oh and Heche. Both are fully committed to this, playing their parts with total seriousness, gifting a glow that puts a shine on some of it’s otherwise duller moments. Both are clearly relishing the opportunity to play roles out of the ordinary, which brings us back to the questions about Hollywood that the film really provoked from the outset.

Why is the prospect of this film so unusual? Is it just because of the names Tukel was able to attract? And how did he attract them? One assumes because, hell, concepts like this don’t fall into the laps of Oh and Heche everyday. So why aren’t there more diverse roles available for women in their forties? Brutal, violent, slapstick comedy shouldn’t just be a boy’s club. Though it’s angry and trashy and modestly raucous, Catfight is also well-mannered enough to make a point.

An impolite middle finger to assumptions.

Score:  3

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