If you don’t think the idea of a big comic book movie with Sandra Oh and Anne Heche beating up supervillains is a great movie idea, then you haven’t seen “Catfight.” The two acclaimed actresses go at it three separate times in the indie comedy. They coldcock each other in the face. They do body slams. They bust out sleeper moves. By the end the “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Hung” alumnae have transformed into bloody, exhausted, feral messes.
“I want us to be superheroes,” Heche says, laughing. “I want someone to come after us and put us in a hot, big budget movie, where we’re pounding on other people, and not ourselves.”
In “Catfight,” Oh plays Veronica, a SoHo trophy wife who runs into Heche’s Ashley, a struggling abstract painter. Neither are very happy with their lives, and what starts out as a mild tiff explodes into a knock-down, drag-out fight. It was a first for both Oh and Heche.
“The most important thing in the world to me was being nervous that I would accidentally punch Sandra Oh out,” Heche recalls. “Fortunately I didn’t. We got hurt, we got beat up, we put everything into our fights. But neither one of us hurt the other.”
There was another uphill battle to fight, though.
“This is a very tiny film,” Oh tells us. “We had no rehearsal and no budget. It’s not the kind of thing where you say, ‘Oooh, Matt Damon trained for six months to be Jason Bourne, that’s awesome!’ We did not have that.”
“We had our morning coffee and then started punching each other,” Heche adds.
The film’s very title conjures up less enlightened times — an era of grindhouse exploitation cheapies in which women beat the crap out of each other for the enjoyment of a male audience. The smackdowns in “Catfight” don’t feel like they’re only there for dudes.
“There’s a lot of energy here that you don’t get to see women express so physically in films,” Oh says. “Even the title ‘Catfight’ is both demeaning and gives you demeaning sexual connotations. I don’t think a woman came up with that term to describe fighting women.
“But it’s also one of the reasons I liked this script,” she adds. “I thought it had a point of view and a tone.”
The film — written and directed by a man, Onur Tukel, as it were — offers far more than Oh- Heche beatdowns. In between their three fights, we follow them on their separate lives, which often involve hilariously over-the-top tragedies. For example, after their first fight, Veronica is knocked into a coma. She awakens two years later to find her husband and son have died and her riches have dwindled.
There’s a tricky tone afoot here: We’re supposed to find this both sad and darkly funny.
“The tragedy is the comedy,” Heche explains. “We’re talking about death and loss and relationships and sorrow, but somehow, because it goes too far, we have to laugh. It’s so wrong, but it’s so right.”
Then again, both women bring deep feeling to the roles.
“There’s a complexity to both of the characters,” Oh says. “My character is kind of purposeless and unaware and alcoholic. She transforms herself through her tremendous loss.”
Still, Veronica and Ashley aren't that sympathetic.
“They’re truly selfish, unaware women who for whatever reason can’t see that. So they battle each other,” Heche says. “If they could recognize themselves and be self-reflexive, they wouldn’t be blaming other people for the failures and losses in their lives.”
Heche finds this perversely refreshing: “We’re so trained to indulge ourselves and our problems and our issues — to talk about them and think about them and be patient about them, go to therapy. This is the opposite. This is two chicks who don’t have it together at all, have gotten old enough that they should have. And so they fight.”
“Catfight” also proved to be a timely film, if somewhat by accident. The movie opens with a new, unpredictable lunatic assuming the presidency, who leads America into another war in the Middle East. When it jumps forward again, we find that he’s reinstated the draft and ended universal health care. Hopefully it’s not too prescient.
“We shot this in 2015, and here we are. The things that [Tukel] wrote that were so outrageous or absurd are not so absurd now,” says Oh. “But that’s what we do as artists: We see into the future as much as we can and make stories about them to warn ourselves.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge