"Whodunnit?" This movie tries to answer that -- in 1924, a star-studded boat trip went wrong when someone got shot, and the truth of it was never investigated. This is one thing that might have happened. The actors appear to be enjoying themselves romping through Roaring 20s decadence, but rise to the occasion when genuine acting is called for. It's like an Agatha Christie murder mystery, except no Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.
A bunch of Hollywood glitterati arrive at a boat belonging to William Randolph Hearst, a rather obnoxious Hollywood mogul. Also on the boat is Marion Davies, Hearst's actress mistress, who is being actively pursued by Charlie Chaplin (who recently got his sixteen-year-old costar pregnant), a cool-and-calm eccentric novelist Elinor Glyn, irritating columnist Louella Parsons, fading superproducer Thomas Ince and his frustrated girlfriend, and a slew of others. Rumors fly about Marion and Charlie's suspected affair, and though Hearst doesn't want to believe it, the clues pile up -- with the assistance of Ince, who wants Hearst to be his business partner. A single gunshot threatens all of them...
This is one of the movies that probably won't appeal to the average viewer, simply because a lot of the people in it, with a few exceptions like Chaplin and Davies, are not now remembered clearly. But if viewers can shut off their "hey, I don't know who that was" signals, then they will find a sort of whodunnit without the detective, a juicy soap wrapped up in a mystery wrapped up in a "Hollywood what-if" tale. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the last part is a bit anticlimactic and the buildup is rather insubstantial -- the biggest buildup is Hearst tearing through the boat in search of Chaplin.
Kirsten Dunst shines brightly as Marion Davies, showing both a deeply conflicted young woman and a flirty party girl. She's never been better, even if she does wear a giant butterfly on her head. (Weird headpieces are a constant in this movie -- watch for Tilly's birdcage) Cary Elwes of "Princess Bride" returns as a desperate man who will go the extra mile to revive his career. Edward Herrmann plays a very intriguing Hearst, who is both obnoxious and tender, jealous and angry, controlling and generous. Eddie Izzard plays an insincere predator as Chaplin, who cares more about the conquest than about the woman; Joanna Lumley is rather underused, but she imbues all her scenes with a hilarious dry wit; Jennifer Tilly plays an irritating flibbertigibbet who has an unexpected cunning streak.
The dialogue is fast, dry and enjoyable -- one of my favorite lines was "Hollywood, a land just off the coast of the planet Earth." There's some sexual content (nothing too graphic) and a fair amount of profanity; teens who like Kirsten Dunst particularly will enjoy this, but younger kids will be bored silly.
This is not the movie that will appeal to the bubble-brained. But anyone who likes witty dialogue, sparkling costumes, a well-thought-out plotline and the shivering thrill of wondering if this was how it happened will think "Cat's Meow" is the cat's pajamas.