"We work for God," says one of the chichi guests at the boating party that serves as background for most of the action of "The Cat's Meow," an engaging drama of historical speculation from director Peter Bogdanovich. He isn't talking about religion.
The wisecrack is actually a reference to publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (ably played as a scary, insecure freak by Edward Herrmann), a man so powerful and paranoid in the film's view that he has his boat rigged with peepholes and listening devices to spy on his mistress, staff and friends.
The movie is a satisfying directorial comeback by Bogdanovich, who in recent years has been helming TV movies in between such acting stints as his recurring role as a psychiatrist on "The Sopranos."
Set during a weekendlong birthday celebration on Hearst's luxury yacht, it's a tale made all the juicier by the fact that its premise murder most foul might well have happened in real life.
Based on rumors of what went on that fateful weekend in 1924 (of the dozen or so guests that set sail, one came back on a stretcher), "The Cat's Meow" takes the theory that one of the world's wealthiest men was also a mentally unstable bully and runs with it.
At the top of Hearst's guest list is movie star and director Charlie Chaplin (a fabulous Eddie Izzard), whose ill-advised flirtation with Hearst's lover, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), sparks Hearst's suspicions and much of the film's heat.
The dialogue is catty and incisive in the way that only beautiful, flawed people talk; and the plot is filled with delicious behind-the-scenes machinations by film, newspaper and business types. The question of who's doing whom, and who's about to be made or broken for personal or professional gain, keeps the action rolling.
An elegant drama about power and its frightening uses, "The Cat's Meow" is the bee's knees.