Fancy the sight of two women in a bloody punchfest, a battle royal that makes Fight Club look like a warm-up at a Arthur Murray Dance Center? You’ll be treated not once but three times in Onur Tukel’s Catfight, a weird and now-and-then wonderful tale of female hatred and overlapping destinies. The New York–set film aims for satire, with a Sliding Doors swapped-identity theme and moments of pathos in its wavering sights. But it’s those spectacular, spitting, flailing fights that make the movie hurt so good.
Veronica (Sandra Oh) fidgets in a bourgeois Soho marriage to a stiff-necked defense industry executive (Damian Young), who gloats at the thought of an impending war and landing a big contract. She’s impatient for her sensitive teenage son to stop wasting his time drawing and get serious about studying finance at Yale. Veronica drinks too much red wine, and her husband winces when she gets sloppy and mouthy. The night they head to a party, he warns her to stay off the booze.
Across town in Bushwick, struggling artist Ashley (Anne Heche) desperately tries to make a sale to a patronizing buyer who seems more interested in her baby-voiced assistant’s cartoons than in Ashley’s sloppy, angry paintings. Ashley is trying to have a child with her airhead girlfriend (Alicia Silverstone) and makes ends meet catering parties. One night at a birthday party, Veronica swans in as one of the guests as Ashley resentfully tends bar. Turns out these two were college pals until they became enemies. A barbed exchange brings up old grudges. Her nastier instincts turbocharged by forbidden wine, Veronica goads Ashley with “Are you still doing that art thing you do?”
And before you know it, these angry two are in the stairwell brutally beating each other into library paste, plunging the movie into a darker place. Foley sound explosions, like karate boards snapped in half, add an edge of absurdity, but cruel punches are thrown and blood is spilled. The melee plays out in real time and looks like it hurts in real time, too.
Veronica awakens from a coma two years later to find her world in shreds due in large part to a U.S. war in the Middle East. Her money has run out as “government healthcare” has been repealed, and the hospital is showing her the door (Dylan Baker and Tituss Burgess hit deadpan humor notes as healthcare stooges). In an implied reflection of a society in free fall, she’s forced to crash at the home of the former family maid and take a job cleaning hotel rooms.
Meanwhile Ashley’s star in the art world rises as her angst-ridden oeuvre now strikes a chord with the discontented masses. However, fame has made Ashley a bitch. And who should show up at her ritzy opening but the vengeful Veronica. Another wild fight takes place, and it’s now Ashley’s turn to wake up from a brain injury wondering what the hell happened.
The film works up bitter fun playing with its two characters’ parallel predicaments. Broke, both need to rely on dogsbodies from the past, one with limits to what she can offer, another with an axe to grind. There’s plenty to work with here, but Catfight carelessly wanders Idiocracy-style into too many sendups and lame stabs at topical humor. The movie derides Brooklyn lesbian mommies, pretensions of the art world and ignoramuses who hate art, the 2016 election, and Homeland Security scares.
Yet a few aces in the hole make Catfight worth the ante. Heche brings brittle frustration to her role, but Oh’s noteworthy performance ably combines blazing rage, offhand cool, and subdued pain to make a small picture seem bigger. The movie invests sadness in the humbled women’s’ wounded pride. It feels relevant today as it mourns—and mocks—an America that’s lost its way. Scattershot moments of real emotion help Catfight add up to something more meaningful than expected. Oh, and don’t forget those fights. They’ll rock you like a hurricane.