Peter Bogdanovich has always been a better film historian than a filmmaker. The director, who came to fame with the admittedly superior 1971 film “The Last Picture Show,” has written the definitive books on both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, and their ghosts permeate many of his filmatic judgement. He is too smart and knows too much about film to simply let the magic of filmmaking happen. He is a fine director that aspires to greatness and never quite achieves his goals.
His latest, “The Cat’s Meow,” is a fun 1920s period piece about a weekend excursion on the yacht of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, most famous for being the inspiration for Welles insurmountable debut “Citizen Kane,” is thoughtfully played by veteren character actor Edward Herrmann. Herrmann (“Nixon,” “The Lost Boys”) is Hearst by way of Kane, alternately charming and growling at his guests, but with surprising humanity. Herrmann has complete control of the character and turns rip-off into homage.
The story centers on the Hollywood lore that Hearst killed fading movie mogul Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) during a weekend excursion celebrating Ince’s birthday. Rumor has it that Hearst was enraged to find out that another guest on the yacht, a haughty womanizer named Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard, “Shadow of the Vampire”) had been making time with his mistress, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst, “Spider-Man”). Mistaking Ince for Chaplin in the dark, Hearst shoots him in the head.
This is the entire plot of a movie that has little to do with story and everything to do with acting and atmosphere. Bogdanovich recreates the 1920s entirely on one yacht and allows his actors to explore the fairly liberal morality of the time. The actors are given plenty to chew on, with a script that spends more time handing out juicy parts that attempting any sort of cohesion. Scribe Steven Peros, adapting his play, has a hard time expanding his premise into a film. The dialogue is appropriately cheesy, but never lets any of the characters out of their campy, sometimes two-dimensional roles.
The talented cast also includes Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) as veteren gossip columnist Elinor Glyn and Jennifer Tilly (“Bride of Chucky”) as young upstart Louella Parsons (who, in real life, became the most feared gossip columnist in Hollywood). The two women are wonderful as two sides of the same coin, the jaded and the hopeful – though both are as ruthless and demanding as anyone else on the ill-fated boat.
Dunst, a little young for her role, is none-the-less charming and wholly believable. Believablity is the only thing lacking from Izzard’s sly performance. He fails to embody Chaplin’s grace of movement and is to stocky to play the Tramp. The under-rated Elwes brings his trademark wit to his unsypmathetic characterization of the desperate Ince.
Bogdanovich, despite his expert’s grasp of atmosphere, falls into the background and does little to save the film from its stagey roots. He may understand the craft better than anyone, but he does not have the spark to turn goodness into greatness.