Dir: Peter Bogdanovich. Germany-UK. 2001. 111 mins.

Despite some moments of nasty, old-fashioned fun and a shining performance by Kirsten Dunst (pictured), The Cat's Meow, Peter Bogdanovich's eagerly awaited comebackafter close to a decade without a theatrical feature to his name, is a disappointment. Assuming the shape of a trashy Sunday Night television movie, it offers a weightless, gossipy account of a fateful weekend in 1924 aboardWilliam Randolph Hearst's private yacht, during which film pioneer Thomas Incewas critically shot under the most bizarre, never-resolved circumstances.Receiving its world premiere at the Locarno Festival, Cat's Meow will travel the road of other major festivals, such as Telluride and Toronto, due to Bogdanovich's stature as a director and the film's scandalous "inside Hollywood" theme. However, domesticdistributor Lions Gate faces an uphill battle in marketing a period picture,which may appeal to movie buffs and older viewers still intrigued by the era'sdramatic persona, but whose subject matter means next to nothing to today'spredominantly young patrons. Prospects in ancillary markets seem brighter forwhat's truly a curiosity anecdotal item.

It's good to seeBogdanovich, a major force of American Cinema in the 1970s, behind the cameras,after a long absence from feature moviemaking, during which he directed for TVand worked as an actor. A former critic/essayist, Bogdanovich, whose undisputedmasterwork is still The Last Picture Show (1971), has written most eloquently about Orson Welles and CitizenKane, the shadows of which loomlarge when watching Cat's Meow.His new movie that centres on the obsessive love affair between Hearst, theinspiration for Citizen Kane'sprotagonist, and the actress Marion Davies. In one of her strongest parts todate, Kirsten Dunst shines as Hearst's mistress, and so does Edward Herrmann,as her powerful mogul benefactor. Nonetheless, two players are miscast: Britishstand-up comic Eddie Izzard, as a self-absorbed Charlie Chaplin, and agrotesquely caricaturistic Jennifer Tilly, as influential gossip columnistLouella Parsons.

The chief problem is StevenPeros' incoherent, dissatisfying script, based on his New York play, whichcan't make up its mind whether it's a comic satire of Hollywood's influentialplayers circa 1924, at the height of the silent era, or a romantic melodrama,structured around the triangle of Davies, torn between two vastly different lovers,Hearst and Chaplin. As a result, the film's tone changes from scene to scene,vacillating between deep cynicism about tinsel town and schmaltzy melodramaticsaimed at eliciting sympathy for the central characters that the movie suggestsare "flesh and blood," just like the audience.

Framed by a black-and-whiteopening and closure, Cat's Meowbegins with Ince's funeral, in what seems like an homage to the noirish satire,Sunset Boulevard. Whereas in Billy Wilder's 1950 picture,the narrator was a corpse (William Holden, dead in a pool), here it's ElinorGlyn (Lumley), the popular British novelist who lived in Hollywood and was aguest of Hearst that weekend. In a sobering voice, Glyn claims that of the 14passengers aboard the yacht, invited to celebrate Ince's birthday, only one wasinterrogated by the police, and that the official report concluded that Incedied in his own bed of "heart failure," caused by ill-digestion.Moreover, no evidence (photos, records) survived the ominous November 15, 1924weekend. As Glyn says: "everything was told in whispers, and this is thewhisper most often told."

Switching to colour and themain locale, the story proper resembles a mystery novel of Agatha Christie's (AndThen There Were None, filmed by ReneClair in 1945, or Murder On The Orient Express), introducing the individual characters as theyarrive at San Pedro Harbor off the Los Angeles coast. Inexplicably, Glyn'svoice-over narration is dropped after she poignantly observes, "I'm notcertain if I'm visiting a zoo or am one of the animals," which sums up thewriter's grubby attitude toward his material. And what a human zoo the yachtis.

If the first reel isintriguing, it's mostly due to the eccentric, colourful aggregate of guests.Very much in the spirit of the time -- the jazzy, swinging 1920s -- marriedproducer Ince (Elwes) is there with his nagging mistress, Margaret Livingston(Harrison). Unlike Hearst, who carries an open affair with Davies, Ince isfoolish enough to believe that his affair is clandestine, quietly rushing toher cabin in the middle of night.

It takes only aminute to realize that this excursion of "fun and frolic" willactually become the playground for power clashes, unfulfilled romanticyearnings, and both manifest and latent agendas. Arriving with his manager,Ince, realizing his financial problems, comes up with a series of businesspropositions that are based on wishful mergers with Hearst's operations.

The film's most patheticfigure -- and the real villain of the piece -- is Chaplin, who is depictedright after the commercial failure of his Woman Of Paris and in pre-production for The Gold Rush, which will become one of his most renownedcomedies. Fighting rumours that he has impregnated his 16-year-oldingenue, Lita Grey, the selfish genius declares love for Davies,pursuing her with film offers, staring at her, and finally getting her into thesack. In what becomes an incriminating piece of evidence, Chaplin writes anintimate letter to Davies, then tosses it in the can, where it's later found bythe insecure, Iago-like Ince.

It's in these scenes, wherethe characters are eavesdropping and snooping around their neighbours' cabins,that Cat's Meow recalls an AgathaChristie's whodunit - but without the acumen, grace, and playfulness ofsuch mysteries. Not helping matters is the film's abrupt cutting, whichaccounts for numerous brief scenes, often revolving around spiteful one-liners,some of which are imitative of the kind Norma Desmond has made notoriouslyfamous in Sunset Boulevard.

The film's worst portraiture(and most hideous performance) belongs to Louella Parsons, then a young,ambitious columnist, unaware of Hollywood's rules of the game, prominent amongwhich is "never mix business and pleasure." Like Izzard, who physicallydoesn't resemble Chaplin, Tilly comes up with her own interpretation of thereal-life frumpy