“Catfight” is a great example of truth in advertising: In writer-director Onur Tukel’s nutty satire, Anne Heche and Sandra Oh beat the shit out of each other. That much should be obvious from a passing familiarity with the premise, but it’s less the plot of the movie than its motif. Heche and Oh don’t just beat the shit out of each other; they do it on three separate occasions, for minutes on end, and each blow lands with an alarming crunch.
Although the filmmaking has a ragged quality that doesn’t always hit its mark, the two brawling women certainly do. No matter its flaws, Tukel’s witty inversion of the buddy movie formula — set in an embellished world riddled by wartime dysfunction — has some legitimate ideas about the way feuds can last so long that neither side remembers what they’re fighting over. Imagine “Trading Places” meets “Idiocracy” with the occasional dash of martial arts and you might start to get the idea of the bizarre, anarchic storytelling Tukel offers up.
“Catfight” represents a step up in scale for the filmmaker, who starred in his last two urban comedies “Summer of Blood” and “Applesauce” as a loudmouthed New Yorker. Here, he divides that persona between two angst-riddled women who had a falling-out for unknown reasons back in their college days. The arrogant Veronica (Oh) leads a posh life in Soho with her husband, a cold-hearted war profiteer, and their artistically-inclined teenage son whose creativity is the constant subject of their derision. (“Why are you drawing that?” she demands of him when he produces a decent nature sketch at home.) Ashley (Heche) lives under considerably less stable conditions, struggling to get by with her partner (a smarmy Alicia Silverstone in an underdeveloped part) while dreaming of making it as an artist. In the first act, they abruptly reconnect at a fancy party and must reassess their past. A sudden brawl in the stairwell leaves one of the women in a coma for two years; when she wakes up, the whole world has changed, and she’s forced to pick up the pieces.
Around them, America is slowly falling apart. On several occasions, Tukel pauses the story for snippets of a crass late night TV host, who interrupts commentary on the country’s fascist president and mounting overseas incursions for fart jokes. Nobody seems all that troubled by the real news, but they always crack up at the fart jokes.
Society’s a mess, but these women remain oblivious until they’re forced to experience it firsthand. From the makings of a familiar two-hander, Tukel delivers a free-wheeling tale of privileged people losing everything. Stretched across several two-year intervals as the women continue to clash, “Catfight” blends the sublime and absurd with the concise lunacy of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. It’s never quite as pointed or well-assembled, but Tukel’s angry screenplay is propelled by a kind of angry social commentary that unifies its random bits. At different moments, both women awaken to changed lives, where the people they’ve taken for granted no longer exist to serve their needs. It’s a keen metaphor for the assumption of stability that defines Western civilization. While “Catfight” leans on abrupt, silly twists, Tukel’s willingness to swing for lofty concerns elevates the whole experience.
The movie struggles when it reaches for more melancholic developments, with a series of dark moments that don’t quite sink in because they’re so unconvincing; the abrupt tonal shifts from humor to tragedy suggest something out of Todd Solondz’s oeuvre, but Tukel’s lacks the precision to make them sink in. But if “Catfight” is considered as one prolonged editorial cartoon, the jagged edges of its storytelling matter less than the sensibility they reflect.
And at the end of the day, the centerpiece of “Catfight” is its bloody fights — and, boy, they sure deliver the goods. Ironically set to classical music, these well-choreographed moments drag on for minutes at a time. Heche and Oh throw punches and kicks until their characters seem incapable of moving further, then somehow keep going, like a WWE showdown set in the real world. Tukel complicates the scenario by making it hard to root for either side. They’re both equally doomed by self-interests. While “Catfight” offers a wry look at a society on the verge of destroying itself, Tukel suggests that its true weakness comes from nothing more than petty arguments.
“Catfight” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.