In the Roaring '20s, William Randolph Hearst was not only a newspaper magnate but also a movie mogul to whom nearly every actor and producer wanted to suck up. "The Cat's Meow," director Peter Bogdanovich's first theatrical release in nearly a decade, depicts Hearst's Hollywood as very much like that of today, a world in which the players were driven by twin passions: a lust for power and just plain lust.
One of those passions resulted in the mysterious death of producer Thomas Ince following a party aboard Hearst's yacht in 1924. Charlie Chaplin made the gala, as did actress and Hearst girlfriend Marion Davies. Even gossip columnist Louella Parsons was among the guests, but what she learned of this Hollywood true-life story never went to press. In "The Cat's Meow," Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros attempt to fill in the holes.
A murder mystery involving some of an era's biggest show-biz names ought to provide a savory stew. But Bogdanovich (who once gave us such meaty fare as "The Last Picture Show") gives us precious little to chew on. The acting is as shallow and tedious as the script. Hearst (Edward Hermann, in a portrayal more goofy than grandiose) is not fond of most of his guests. Rival producer Ince (Cary Elwes, who sleepwalks through his role) is on a downward career spiral and uses the occasion to try to cozy up to Hearst, hoping to merge their companies.
Meanwhile, womanizer Chaplin (Eddie Izzard, in a one-dimensional performance) comes on strong to Davies (Kirsten Dunst), who simply can't decide which famous man she craves more. When he finds evidence that Chaplin is trying to steal Davies away, Hearst gets angry. A shot is fired, but there is no way that Parsons (Jennifer Tilly, who gives the film its only moments of humor) is going to spill the beans, not when she can use her knowledge to negotiate a lifetime contract for her column. A cover-up ensues, and most of the guests go home clueless.
Bogdanovich himself tries to cover up the story's shortcomings, dazzling us with snazzy costumes and pop music from the flapper era, plus far too many scenes of the cast dancing the Charleston. But the razzle-dazzle veneer wears thin. As one observant character, commenting about all the time she and her self-obsessed associates spend doing the Charleston on Hearst's yacht, says, "If we stopped looking like fools, we'd have nothing." Ahem, and amen.