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Review: Onur Tukel’s ‘Catfight’

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Any movie named Catfight has a lot to live up to. Namely, Pam Grier in Coffy (when she face-slams a girl against a wall, throws her across a buffet table and rips her top off). Catfight, written and directed by Onur Tukel, takes a more feminist-friendly approach to the phenomenon of warring women by moving the fight to liberal New York City and casting Sandra Oh and Anne Heche as reasonable, college-educated friends who spar with words and, yes, fists. The film is a surreal, black comedy and, in order to enjoy it, you have to agree to its terms. Its humor is that of a New Yorker cartoon: either zany to the point of nonsensical or so deadpan the jokes don’t sound like jokes at all. It also helps to be a fan of Oh and Heche, two actresses whose comic talents have flown criminally under the radar for decades. Here, they thrive. The film makes irrational leaps in time and has tonal problems, slipping into pathos that is utterly forced, but Oh and Heche are extraordinary. With their pinched expressions, pitch perfect line deliveries and formidable fists, they are the reason Catfight carries a punch.

Veronica (Sandra Oh) is a privileged, Manhattan trophy wife and she’s funny from the moment she appears on screen. Is it the way her eyebrows crinkle when she’s guzzling wine? Is it the way she snuggles up to her teenage son and tells him not to become an artist because that’s not a real thing? Is it the way she rolls her eyes when her rich husband tells her not to drink at his work party? “A party without alcohol?” she says, “I might as well be AA.” It’s impossible to say what makes Oh so funny other than to say that she just is, and why she hasn’t been cast in more starring roles is a mystery we should one day solve.

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On the other, notably poorer side of the East River, Ashley (Heche) scrapes by as a middle-aged painter, surviving on her conviction that bleak art is what the people need to see. Her twinkle-voiced assistant Sally (Ariel Kavoussi) doubts her (“Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all just relax?”), but Ashley snaps back, saying we need insanity “to pull us out of our current insanity.” In many scenes, news of a Middle East war plays in the background, and Catfight doubles as a satirical critique of stateside ignorance.

Tukel’s writing is full of wit and his fast-paced script reaches a hilarious peak when Veronica and Ashley recognize each at a party. They haven’t seen each other since a vague falling out around the time when Ashley came out at a lesbian. What exactly happened remains a puzzle the film sadly never attempts to solve. Now, Veronica is married to a rich guy whose company profits from the war, and Ashley — stridently anti-war — is pouring drinks as a caterer at the snobby party. When she mentions that she still paints, Veronica raises a judgmental eyebrow. “You stayed with it?” she asks. The conversation devolves from there as Veronica gets more condescending and Ashley more indignant. The two separate with anger in their eyes and reunite later in a stairwell. What could have resulted in another funny conversation suddenly turns into a vicious fight. It’s a bloody, noisy mess and, depending on your tolerance for bone-crunching sound effects, it’s also a bit cringe inducing.

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The fight goes on for an excessively long time, and if you’re not turned off by the nose-breaking, tooth-smacking violence of it all, you might not like what happens next. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that it involves a two-year coma and a financial situation wherein Oh is forced to become a hotel maid and Ashley is suddenly on the cover of an art magazine. This is all to say that Catfight is out of control. It’s a satirical critique of war in the Middle East. It’s a story of riches to rags and rags to riches. It’s a moral fable where nobody learns anything. Tituss Burgess makes a guest appearance as a blunt hospital nurse with no patience for slow-to-wake coma patients. Alicia Silverstone is a paranoid, lesbian mom.

What Catfight lacks in sanity, it makes up for in the sheer exuberance of Sandra Oh and Anne Heche. Their performances are ferocious and funny, reminding one of all the other amazing, if small, performances these women have given in films like Sideways (Oh, 2004) and Walking and Talking (Heche, 1996). If nothing else, Catfight serves a reminder to revisit these women’s eclectic careers. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.

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