Cats Is an Operatically Weird Cult Classic for the Ages

The 2019 Movie Club, entry 13.

Francesca Hayward sings as Victoria the White Cat.
Francesca Hayward in Cats. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Universal Pictures.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.

Dear Mistoffelees, Rum Tum Tugger, and Skimbleshanks (up to you to figure out which one of you is which cat, or which cat is which in the first place):

What are the odds that, out of four film critics in late 2019, fully three of us would be indifferent to the appeal of Uncut Gems? As of this writing its critical rating sits at 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and though it’s rolling out slowly on an indie release schedule it’s been reigning at the box office too, breaking the per-screen opening weekend record for its very of-the-minute distributor A24. (This year it also brought us The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Waves, and The Farewell, which Alison wrote about so movingly in her last post that I can only respond by sending people back to read it.) I hear what Bilge says about the characters’ behavior in Uncut Gems being true to the laws of that movie’s chaotic world without ever quite being recognizably human. And Karen nails my reservations when she mentions the nihilism of the ending, though it’s true it’s tough to imagine things turning out any different than they do for Howie Ratner.

On walking out of this portrait of a sad-sack high roller my response, if I’m being honest, was similar to the one I had to the Safdie brothers’ last film, the Robert Pattinson–starring 2017 crime thriller Good Time: Congratulations, bros, you made me vaguely jittery for the rest of the day. I would never begrudge another viewer their Uncut Gems joy, though. Plenty of my friends were as spellbound by the movie’s cacophonous sound design and jagged, glitzy energy as Kevin Garnett is by that dubiously sourced hunk of black opal. And as Karen writes, there’s no shame in recognizing and even admiring what a movie is up to while accepting that it just isn’t for you.

Since I see most of the 200 or so movies I watch each year functionally alone—in a theater with an audience of fellow critics, but without a designated post-movie conversation partner—it’s only around now, at the holidays, that I’m reminded of filmgoing as a social event, a way for friends and family members to find a common experience to share, laugh or cry at, fight about or shrug off with a tolerant “You liked that, eh?” Two nights ago I saw Cats at the multiplex with a family group spanning two generations. Some of us—fine, my theater-nerd daughter and I—watched it squeezing one another’s hands and exchanging glances of thrilled disbelief at its jazz-paws choreography and sheer operatic weirdness.

My niece and sister-in-law sat through it in a more neutral state of befuddlement—I didn’t detect any laughter coming from their side, but nor did they seem on the verge of getting up and leaving. And my brother, who has the envious ability to fall asleep in any situation, used those two hours as an opportunity for a wholesome nap, awaking just in time to benefit from Judi Dench’s fourth-wall-breaking reassurance that “a cat is not a dog.”

Among the five of us we had at least three distinct experiences, but walking to the subway afterward we were already recombining them into a common language, boisterously conjecturing as to the meaning of “jellicle” and assigning each other distinct feline alter egos with laboriously whimsical names. As Alison demonstrates in a hilarious and thoughtful review in which she declares the film, “in all affection, a monstrosity,” Cats is not only critic-proof but meaning-proof, existing in a place beyond good and evil. It did abysmal box office over opening weekend, and was additionally humiliated by Universal’s announcement that they’re pushing out a new digital version to movie theaters with corrected special effects. (I’ll always be proud to have been among the early adopters who got to catch a glimpse of Dench’s furless human hand, complete with wedding ring.) Cats’ failure to fill theaters may serve as a corrective for the big studios’ recent tendency to invest in large-scale adaptations of stage musicals, but I suspect it will live on as a cult classic on home screens, purred over and batted about like a ball of yarn by stoners and drama teens of all ages.

Another viewing with the same family group the next day—of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, watched at home on DVD screener—made me regret not putting that singular murder mystery on my ten-best list. (I relegated it to runner-up status.) Johnson’s canny remix of the Agatha Christie–style whodunit had the opposite effect of Cats—everyone loved it, from the preteens to the fiftysomethings, and the conversation afterward was not a creative riff on the film’s endearing flaws but a closer-in analysis of the tricks, twists, and fake-outs that made it so effective.

Alison may be right that the only way a new movie draws audiences now is by turning itself into an outside-the-theater spectacle—something for auteurs and fanboys to face off over, influencers to meme-ify, and marketing departments to sell with the kind of multiplatform strategy that links up The Rise of Skywalker with products as unlikely as a washing machine. But the ragtag Resistance fighter in me wants to believe that both truly good and memorably bizarre movies will get a chance at a second life, whether on streaming, in midnight-movie fests, or in the Heaviside Layer of our hearts.

Bilge, it’s the final round. Where, in the multiplex or out, did you get your last fix of sparkly catnip?

Yours with unmistakably human hands,

Read the next dispatch here.