Thursday 9 March 2017

Rage hard: "Catfight"

As ever, the secret of comedy is timing. The cherishably cartoonish satire Catfight opens against the backdrop of a bellicose President assuming office, immediately setting all of its characters on edge in a way audiences in March 2017 can't fail to recognise. With great economy, writer-director Onur Tukel lays out a vision of a society in which frenzied, status-related passive-aggression has become the currency most likely to trickle down from the powers-that-be. Every frame in the film drips with it; it's just a question of when the real deal will come out. If you're one of those people who found Meet the Parents - let alone the British Office, let alone Curb Your Enthusiasm - excruciating to watch, you should probably steer clear. For the rest of us, Catfight may well be the most cathartic release of the moment.

Among its other charms, this is also a propulsive vehicle for two notable, forthright yet tricky-to-cast performers who went AWOL the minute the movies began chasing comic-book heroines, here thrust back into the middle of the ring as old college pals renewing an old feud. In one corner, we have Sandra Oh as Veronica, a New Yorker who abandoned her studies to marry into (military-industrial) money and has had to take up drinking in a bid to wash away her self-loathing. In the other, there is Ashley (Anne Heche), a penniless artist furious that her agonised crimson daubs are being passed over in favour of such pablum as her studiomate's picture-book rendering of fluffy bunnies. When they bump into one another again at a party, it's with a crash and a bang, resulting in an altercation that leaves Veronica in a coma for two years; when she wakes up to discover her husband and her money have gone in that time, it's the start of a knock-down, drag-out grudge match.

And that's about it: ninety-odd minutes operating by Road Runner or Itchy and Scratchy logic, generating a snappy string of reveals and reversals, all set to a jolly-ironic soundtrack Larry David might crack a smile at. We had to wait until the very end of last week's Fist Fight for anything like a worthwhile confrontation; Tukel, by contrast, uses this ongoing rivalry to stage regular, spectacular no-holds-barred smackdowns, further punched up by inventive Foley work, in which Heche and Oh reposition themselves as far more interesting options to play Wonder Woman than model-turned-actress Gal Gadot. Even the more social interactions seem liable to leave someone on screen suppressing rage of one form or another: gifts at the baby shower Heche throws for partner Alicia Silverstone are rejected for not being right-on enough; gentrification transforms Bushwick into a new, unaffordable Bohemia; both heroines find themselves being turfed from their hospital beds by a slothy Dylan Baker, as a coma specialist with IBS. Everything's infuriating, and that's the point.

Tukel's suggestion is that it's not money (no longer available) nor oil (all used up) but the need to get one up, one over or one's own back on someone that has become the main motivation and lubricant coursing through American society. (Again, look to the White House, if you can bear to.) If he can't quite land the knockout blow the third act demands, his film gets as close as American movies have come for a long time to emulating the spirit of Preston Sturges or George Axelrod, throwing away his moral early on ("Wouldn't the world be a better place if we could all just relax?") in order to deliver a steady stream of yaks and yuks. Emerging in yet another week of rash Presidential Tweets, and a disproportionate Russian huff over a Disney kids' film, Catfight at the very least acknowledges that, with the way things are, you gotta laugh. Otherwise you might just punch somebody in the face.

Catfight opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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