CATFIGHT * * *
Starring Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Craig Bierko and Dylan Baker. Written and directed by Onur Tukel.
Independent films can sometimes take years to make, so it’s odd to find one as attuned to our current cultural moment as writer-director Onur Tukel’s splenetically funny Catfight – a semi-dystopian farce about two former college friends who always seem to end up beating the shit out of each other. This crude, bluntly effective movie is supposed to be a satirical exaggeration, but the anxiety it depicts feels very real right now. It’s about a frustrated culture in which toxic aggression roils beneath the surface of the most placid interactions, where even the smiles simmer with contempt.
Sandra Oh stars as Veronica, the wine-guzzling trophy wife of a maybe-gay defense contractor about to cash in on an unnamed new president’s “war against the Middle East.” A spectacularly miserable human being, she stumbles around half-in-the-bag most of the time deriding her teenage son’s artistic proclivities. Anne Heche plays Ashley, a similarly unpleasant struggling artist whose lurid canvases would probably give you nightmares if you hung one in your home. The two women haven’t spoken since their university days, yet each finds in the other a perfect opportunity to project all their self-hatred and rage at the way their lives ended up. When they bump into each other in an empty stairwell after a boozy party, watch out.
Their sloppy, crazily brutal fisticuffs are scored with circus music (or “Stars and Stripes Forever,” for the final battle) but the actresses commit 100% to the bloody nose-smashing and appear to quite seriously want to kill one another. For viewers however, these periodic eruptions of violence serve as something like a pressure release valve in a movie exasperated to the boiling point by a moronic society of knee-jerk patriotism and craven greed, where the masses are tickled by a glib late night talk show host (Craig Bierko at his smarmy Bierko-est) introducing regular guest “The Fart Machine” while for-profit hospitals pull the plugs on patients after bleeding their bank accounts dry.
Obviously Catfight is not a subtle film, yet Oh and Heche bring surprising depth and texture to their portrayals. Here are two actresses the movies never quite figured out what to do with, fearlessly throwing themselves into these roles with zero concern for being liked. The slightest wink to the audience or condescension to the characters by either would have sent this whole thing off the rails. They’re playing the truth inside Tukel’s editorial cartoon.
Speaking of actresses who deserved better careers, Alicia Silverstone has a honey of a role as Heche’s long-suffering wife. At first we’re thinking this kind Kewpie-doll might be the movie’s moral center, until a mercilessly amusing baby shower sequence allows Silverstone to once again display her killer comedy chops, a withering disdain radiating from that crooked smile.
Clumsy as it may sometimes be, the all-encompassing viciousness of Catfight feels weirdly cathartic. But then as the Boss sang on an album I’ve been returning to an awful lot lately, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.