Taking a cruise to nowhere

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Fascination with celebrities and scandals didn't start when the E! channel hit cable. Hollywood has been feeding this appetite – on screen and off – since the age of silent cinema.

Peter Bogdanovich's new picture, "The Cat's Meow," dives into these waters with an air of easygoing elegance that suits the film's main setting: a luxurious yacht owned by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst in the mid-1920s.

The story swarms with celebrities, including comedian Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), film producer Thomas H. Ince (Cary Elwes), and novelist Eleanor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), as well as Hearst (Edward Herrmann) and Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), his actress girlfriend. They're hoping for a good time on their pleasure cruise, but the sea breezes carry unexpected whiffs of romance, rivalry, and violence.

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Based on a real-life murder case that has never been definitively resolved, "The Cat's Meow" could have been a salacious journey into Hollywood excesses of the roaring '20s. Bogdanovich is too gentlemanly a filmmaker to sail in that direction, though. He handles the tale's sensational elements with taste and tact, rarely raising a holler when a discreet whisper will do.

This is one of the movie's assets, but it's a liability as well, draining vitality from potentially gripping scenes and lowering our interest in a boatload of engaging characters.

Bogdanovich has probed Hollywood subjects in movies as different as "Targets" and "Nickelodeon," and few filmmakers know the territory better. Still, this can't be called one of his more successful excursions. In the end, "The Cat's Meow" resembles the yacht where it takes place. Everything is arranged for fun, pleasure, and amusement. But the vehicle itself is heavy and cumbersome, and it takes a tad too long to get us where we're going.

• Rated PG-13; contains brief sex, violence, and drug use.

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