Friday, July 7, 2017
There was a time when the most pressing issue on anyone's mind was Hollywood's depiction of violence against women. It seemed a movie couldn't be made without watchdog groups complaining about the way some female character was beaten up or killed by a drill. Those days seem to be gone - the fashionable new worries are all about fat shaming and making sure transvestites have a place to pee - but I wonder what the old anti-violence crusaders would think about Catfight, a movie where Anne Heche and Sandra Oh lay into each other with the passion of freightcar hobos fighting over a chicken bone. They don't just pull hair and wrestle around like in those seedy VHS tapes my buddy Owen used to order special from a company in New York. No, Heche and Oh are savage, with director Onur Tukel wallowing in every broken nose and split lip. Anyone tuning in because of the sleazy title in hopes of seeing some semi-erotic Jell-O wrestling would probably be disappointed. Or horrified. If they stick with it, though, Catfight is a strangely watchable movie.
Heche and Oh play two former college friends now in middle age. Oh has married a wealthy man and settled into the role of rich bitch wife and mother. She drinks too much, though, and seems like a hostile, miserable sort. Heche plays a failed artist down to working as a caterer with her girlfriend, played by Alicia Silverstone. One grim evening Heche is hired to cater a party for Oh's husband. The two former friends meet, engage in some testy conversation, and are soon fighting like Mickey Rourke and Frank Stallone in Barfly. Oh gets the worst of it and ends up in a coma for two years. When she comes out of it she learns, among other things, her money is gone. The tone is darkly comic, satirizing America in the time of war, the sort of loopy comedy Christopher Durang might've written in the '80s. It's not quite laugh-out-loud funny, but watching Oh struggle in her new life is intriguing.
Meanwhile, Heche goes on to become a famous artist, her screwy paintings earning big bucks. Heche and Silverstone want a baby - Silverstone, by the way, is a treat here, playing a desperate mother wannabe, carrying around a doll so she can get used to carrying an infant - but Heche isn't mommy material anymore. She's become a neurotic, success crazed celebrity artist who subjects her young assistant, a hapless young woman who contents herself by drawing bunnies, to horrible verbal abuse. Oh, whose only living relative is a wacky aunt who sleeps all day while waiting for the end of the world, gets a job as a hotel maid. While making beds, she happens upon an art magazine with Heche on the cover. The two rivals will meet again, and fight again. There will be more shattered mouths, more comas. Stunt coordinator Balint Pinczehelyi deserves kudos for creating fights that exist in that murky borderland of movie-style brawling and realistic blood spilling. No cheesy martial arts crap here.
Heche and Oh throw themselves into this movie, and though the ending is anticlimactic - I'd hoped the two would end up like McTigue and his rival in Von Stroheim's Greed, handcuffed together in the scalding desert - there's a lot here to like. Heche has always been one of the more peculiar performers in the movie business, something like Veronica Lake crossed with a ferret. She's elevated a lot of movies that were beneath her, and it's nice to see her in something that is actually worth her presence. As good as Heche is here, Oh may be even better, if only because she has a longer way to go, starting as an icy, unlikable Manhattan witch and evolving into a person we actually care about, one who has more in common with her rival than is readily apparent. The better fighter? It's a tough call. Oh throws a mean right hand, and she can take punishment all day, while Heche has surprising energy, fighting from a source powered entirely by hate. Tukel underscores the fight scenes with bits of classical music and patriotic marching tunes, but his attempt to lighten the mood is obliterated by the burning rage of the two actresses. Hell, I don't think Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine could've done any better.