Is it significant that the demographic group who most likes What's New, Pussycat? are males under the age of 18 and the group who likes it the least are females over the age of 45? I have to admit that as a male (although far closer to over 45 than under 18), What's New, Pussycat? somewhat resembles my fantasies of utopia, which would involve a lot of wanton polyamory. But I can't judge a film just on how much I like its freewheeling ethics and its regular presentation of beautiful women. What's New, Pussycat? is often funny and occasionally hilarious, but it also has a lot of plot and direction problems, enough so that by the time the big climax arrives, it feels more like just another random sequence instead of the climax it should feel like (subtextual fuel for the anti-polyamory crowd's fire?)
The story turns out to be centered on a handsome man, Michael James (Peter O'Toole), who attracts women even more than he's attracted to them. He calls them all "pussycat", and that's about all he needs to do to have them ready to jump into bed with him. He's most in love with Carole Werner (Romy Schneider), who keeps pressuring him to get married, but he isn't ready to ditch his polyamorous ways, and he doesn't want to cheat on her after they're married. Michael's psychoanalyst, Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers), is also something of a womanizer, but women don't seem to like him near as much. Michael is also an acquaintance of Victor Shakapopulis (Woody Allen), who is moderately successful with women, but most importantly, he is also in love with Carole. The plot involves various sticky situations, so to speak, between these characters and various ancillary characters.
In addition to appearing as a co-star, Woody Allen wrote the script. This was his first real film. He had done a short called The Laughmaker in 1962, and a lot of television prior to What's New, Pussycat? and of course he had done a lot of stand-up. The script is good, at least on the "trees" level (as opposed to the "forest" level), and Allen's performance in his first film makes it easy to see how he became such a big star. He steals the film whenever he appears. O'Toole, who I've never been a very big fan of, tends to come across with an odd combination of stiffness and pretentiousness, despite Allen's good writing. Sellers seems as if director Clive Donner kept him in check a bit too much, and subsequently can seem lost. But Allen's now famous stock film personality shines through in his scenes. Performing his own comedy, even though he didn't direct, Allen's scenes flow, seem natural, have perfect timing, and are very funny.
Still, it might be difficult to not blame Allen for some of the overall messiness of the story--on the "forest" level. Donner starts with a scene that may be attractive visually--it features Sellers and his Wagnerian Viking wife bickering in their unusual home, shot from a wide angle so we can see the entire front of the house while they run around to from room to room, stairway to stairway--but the unusualness doesn't seem to have much point dramatically. That's indicative of problems to come. Donner too frequently blocks and shoots scenes at unfortunate angles. And there are far too many scenes that seem to be there just to be groovy or unusual, but they drag down the plot, sometimes almost grinding it to a halt.
As the film progresses, the complex relationships involving many different parties can become confusing. It doesn't help that some actors change their look--such as cutting their hair--as the film unfolds. Ancillary characters can come and go without warning and with little explanation. The climax depends on a large number of people heading to the same location, but for half of them, it's not at all clear why they head there, they just announce that they're going. The climax is still a bit funny, and it's one of the better and more complexly staged sequences, but it doesn't have anything like the impact it should. Story-wise, the film feels over before the climax even arrives.
As I just mentioned in my (more favorable) review of the same year's Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, the 1960s, because of a number of factors including the near non-existent application of the dreaded Hays Production Code at this point and a general social atmosphere of experimentation, resulted in films that tended to be sprawling and experimental in their approach to such basics as plot. What's New, Pussycat? is a prime example. It often becomes clear that plot is being played with in a way that leads to occasional abandonment. In a way, What's New, Pussycat? is more just a collection of skits or scenarios, with a loosely related theme. While I'm a fan of experimentation and I admire the loosey-goosey, stream-of-consciousness attitude suggested, and Allen certainly satisfies my taste for absurdism in some of his scenarios (such as his birthday dinner), the fact remains that in this case, the plot experimentation just doesn't quite work.
The final judgment, however, is that I slightly recommend What's New, Pussycat? but primarily to see Allen's scenes and enjoy the writing of his scenarios. There are other attractors and interesting aspects, including the fact that Ursula Andress has probably never looked better than she does here (although she's looked as good), but like an unfortunate many of these 1960s "madcap comedies", What's New, Pussycat? should be approached with a bit of caution.