- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

The role of the teen-age sweetheart in "Spider-Man" may pay off for Kirsten Dunst in certain respects, but it doesn't flatter her acting talents aside from proving that she can hang a smiling or terrified visage for a director whose timing is off. Her most stellar moments showcase how swell she can look in a drenched blouse.

Coincidentally, another movie with Miss Dunst enters the marketplace this weekend. Though it's no great shakes as a scandal-tinged period piece, "The Cat's Meow" does present Miss Dunst with a worthy challenge at age 20: an impersonation of the legendary showgirl, silent-comedy star and Hollywood consort Marion Davies. Davies was 27 at the time of the notorious sequence of events recalled by writer Steven Peros and director Peter Bogdanovich, simulating Southern California in Europe and revamping an obscure play by Mr. Peros.

An enduring mystery surrounds the death of a pioneering Hollywood figure, the director-turned-producer and empire-builder Thomas Ince. He perished in November 1924 soon after returning in grave condition from a weekend yachting excursion to Santa Catalina Island. Ince, portrayed by Cary Elwes, was one of the guests of Davies and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), who also subsidized a movie-production company, Cosmopolitan, in order to glorify his mistress.

Ince's death a few days later was attributed to heart failure. There never was an official investigation of the case, which allowed rumors to persist that Ince had been the victim of a gunshot wound.

The filmmakers confirm the standard hypothesis, which may have originated with Davies in moments of drunken confession to intimates. Without giving away too much for those unfamiliar with the grand and lamentable cavalcade of Hollywood, Ince may have stopped a bullet intended for someone else.

The prize candidate for someone else: Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), also a guest, rashly pursuing the erotic conquest of the wary but also susceptible Davies.

One of Mr. Peros' weakest inventions is a half-finished, crumpled love letter from Charlie to Marion. It's conveniently left in the Chaplin cabin for anyone to find and peruse.

An intrusive Ince finds it and tries to use it to curry favor with Hearst. I wish some other pattern of calamity had been fabricated. It's rather mean to envision Ince as an abject supplicant on this fatal weekend. At 42, he probably wasn't quite the has-been the filmmakers suggest, either, although his most creative and influential phase in the movie industry belonged to the previous decade.

Anyway, it seems a failure of imagination as well as generosity to belittle and underestimate the victim among this peer group, which includes a well-documented Hearst sycophant, Louella Parsons, impersonated by Jennifer Tilly; a British celebrity, Joanna Lumley as Elinor Glyn, the novelist and trendsetter who enjoyed a considerable Hollywood vogue during the 1920s; and an aggrieved mistress, Claudia Harrison as actress Margaret Livingston, who resents the fact that her love affair with Ince has to be conducted clandestinely.

One of the wittier touches is a Ping-Pong game between Louella and Margaret, with servants scurrying for the stray balls. The less apparent source of humor is Margaret confiding a scoop about her love life to Louella, who could have made better use of it later on. Louella's emergence as a Hollywood gossip columnist for the Hearst syndicate had yet to occur. On this weekend, she's introduced as a mere movie critic with the chain's Los Angeles paper.

Mr. Bogdanovich's execution is hit-and-miss, especially when compared with his underrated movie version of "Noises Off" a decade ago. Precision timing and cumulative pleasure aren't conspicuous attributes of "The Cat's Meow."

However, there are some vivid and amusing episodes. As a rule, they profit from Miss Dunst's impersonation of Marion. She's particularly accurate when simulating the on-screen actress in a sequence in which the guests watch rushes from her latest picture.

Miss Dunst seems to be the spitting image of the playful and adorable Marion Davies, who became a casualty of misconceptions when "Citizen Kane" confused her years later with a fictional counterpart, the untalented and embittered Susan Alexander.

The charm, warmth and gaiety of Miss Dunst's character are so tangible that one regrets the failure to formulate Hearst's jealousy and Chaplin's lechery in something more subtle and affecting than cartoonish or poison-pen strokes.

I'm not quite sure whose taste is being insulted by the set of prostitutes hired for the voyage, but you would like to imagine that there were tonier trollops on call in Hollywood during the 1920s. Mr. Bogdanovich also takes the liberty of busting numerous guests as "recreational" drug addicts.

There is one nasty inspiration during a party scene that combines masquerades with a round of Charleston dancing. Marion appears in a replica of Charlie's tramp costume, prompting the originator to quip, imprudently, "Marion Davies, the new Tramp."

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