“Let’s bring out the Fart Machine.”
Like a dour Three Stooges skit laden with heavy-handed social satire, Catfight pummels you over the head while constantly nudging you in the ribs. “I’m not nearly as clever as I think I am!” this movie shouts in your ears, right before it smashes a pipe wrench over your head.
Writer-director Onur Tukel sets up a story about societal apathy in the face of mounting conflict, and punctuates it with three knock-down brawls between its two lead characters. There’s Veronica (Sandra Oh), an upper-crust woman with a drinking problem. She’s married to a war profiteer and the mother of a son with artistic ambitions — ambitions Veronica scoffs at. Then there’s Ashley (Anne Heche), an acerbic, struggling artist in a constant state of bickering with her girlfriend Lisa (Alicia Silverstone). Veronica and Ashley were friends once, but the pair had a falling out back in their college days. We never learn just why they had a falling out, but it’s clear as day that the women have major issues with each other. After they run into each other at a party, a brutal fight breaks out, full of punches and choke-holds. The altercation leaves Veronica in a coma for two years.
Tukel has the film unfold during a hyper-aggressive take on the War on Terror, which escalates to the point that the draft is reinstated. When Veronica comes out of her coma she learns that her son died in the war, her husband committed suicide, and all her money is gone. Ashley, meanwhile, has become a successful artist, but has grown increasingly nasty, constantly verbally abusing her assistant (Ariel Kavoussi). Another chance encounter brings Ashley and Veronica back together, which results in yet another fight, this one more brutal than the last. This time it’s Ashley who ends up in a coma, only to wake up two years later. You can probably guess where this is going.
Tukel’s film attempts to highlight the pointlessness of grudges and conflict, while also illustrating the cyclical nature of repercussions. But the approach to the material is so distractingly unsubtle; so screeching and in your face that it begins to wear you down. The highlights of the film, one assumes, should be the battles that Oh and Heche end up in. And while these moments are plenty brutal, filled with bone-crunching sound effects and oozing blood, they’re poorly choreographed, to the point that we can see the actresses clearly swinging against air when they’re meant to be connecting with each other’s heads. To their credit, Oh and Heche do their best to sell the hell out of all of this, and the actresses fair even better in their non-fisticuff scenes. Oh in particular gives her character a bruised humanity that the script itself is lacking.
But the gameness of the actresses isn’t enough to pull this crashing material out of a tailspin. There are some funny touches here and there: Dylan Baker is at his Dylan Baker-ist as a unemotional coma doctor, and Craig Bierko is delightfully deadpan as a late night TV host making droll comments about the War on Terror. But then there are characters like Veronica’s Aunt Charlie (Amy Hill), who is oh-so-quirky and talks to trees. This leads to the film’s most groan-inducing joke, where Aunt Charlie introduces Veronica to her trees: “That’s Bernie, he’s sweet and grounded. That’s Hillary. She’s strong, but a little untrustworthy. Oh, and that’s Donald, he’s an asshole.” Just dreadful.
Catfight wants to be some sort of mix of ultra-violence and Paddy Chayefsky-esque satire, but it fails to result in anything more than an excuse to watch two actresses beat the crap out of each other. It’s not that this film is terrible, or unwatchable. It’s just that there are probably a wealth of things you’d be better served engaging with instead.