There's black comedy, and then there's black-and-blue comedy. "Catfight" is one of the latter, a collection of smart, cynically hilarious story lines knit together with brawls between leading ladies Sandra Oh and Anne Heche that make the epic punch-outs in "Fist Fight" look like patty-cake. If Woody Allen began adding "Raging Bull" episodes to his slices of upper-class urban absurdity, it would play like this.
As punch drunk as those episodes are, there's much more in writer/director Onur Tukel's pitch-perfect farce, beginning with wonderfully mannered performances by his stars.
Veronica (Oh) is the wife of a well-heeled New York City businessman who is about to become a lot richer thanks to a contract to clean the debris produced by the next U.S. war. She is haughty, self-absorbed, insecure and prone to drink balloon-sized carafes filled to the brim with red wine.
Ashley (Heche) is an unsuccessful painter of cartoonish rage images; as soon as you see them you understand why her career is going nowhere. She depends on financial support from her partner, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), a caterer she occasionally helps as a server at swanky private parties.
It's at one of those soirees where the short-fused Ashley and snobbish Veronica recognize each other as college acquaintances. Distant back then, they goad each other to the point of fury, each pointedly telling the other that her life doesn't look as high and mighty as she pretends. Insults are exchanged, then come knuckle sandwiches that put one of the women in a two-year coma. After a screen blackout, she wakes in a jarring, lunatic modern world where our foreign policy is even worse than our rapidly declining hospital care. Who would have seen that coming?
The cleverly layered story evolves through three chapters that advance or undermine the characters' social status. With meticulous care, great sight gags and elaborately set up punchlines, Tukel runs roughshod over every convention of movies about sisterly solidarity. It is at heart a horror comedy whose bloodsucking beasts are smug, aloof women.
It's an offbeat form of humor, and some viewers might have trouble adjusting to it, but those who do embrace it will find its wildly inventive tone thrilling. The movie is a grabber worth seeking out. You haven't seen anything like it.
That said, I didn't feel the value of the elaborate fight scenes between Oh and Heche, whose ongoing verbal battles were irresistible. The lengthy combat scenes push on past the point of diminishing returns. Still, if the Motion Picture Academy offers awards next year for the best achievement in black eye, split lip, busted nose stunt work, here is who'll win. If we see two or three comedies this year that operate as well as this very funny, occasionally touching one does, it'll be a fine year indeed.