Rated PG for thematic elements, language and some rude humor.
Running time: 87 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
It’s hard to explain how incredibly strange “Nine Lives” is. I mean, the premise is pretty simple: Kevin Spacey plays a talking cat. It’s as high-concept as you can get. But the execution of that idea, and the caliber of talent that agreed to take part in this project, are just mind-boggling.
Barry Sonnenfeld directs. Spacey stars. Jennifer Garner plays his wife. Cheryl Hines plays his ex-wife. And in the greatest coup of all, Christopher Walken plays the “cat whisperer” who’s responsible for the cosmic human-feline body swap that sets the story into motion. The performance is exactly what you might expect if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to see Christopher Walken play a cat whisperer.
And yet … and yet. I didn’t completely hate it. I laughed here and there, simply because “Nine Lives” seems fully aware of its innate ridiculousness and willing to embrace it. The script is awful, of course, full of wacky antics and hokey, third-act changes of heart. And it’s squirm-inducing watching Spacey and Walken, two of our most enduring, influential actors, exchange the inane dialogue they’re stuck with here. (Somehow, it took five credited screenwriters to come up with snarky retorts for the supremely gifted Spacey such as “Seriously?” and “Nailed it!”)
It’s not that “Nine Lives” is terrible. It’s just that it’s not terrible enough. It certainly isn’t such a travesty that it needed to be withheld from critics. I took Nicolas to a 6pm showing the Thursday night that it opened, and he was cackling consistently from the opening montage of real-life YouTube cat videos. This is your target audience: 6-year-olds on summer vacation. But for all its shoddy CGI and convoluted plotting, “Nine Lives” is certainly more enjoyable than … oh, say, “Suicide Squad,” for example, and of those two movies, it’s the one I’d rather watch again.
Speaking of the plot, here’s what “Nine Lives” is actually about: Spacey stars as Tom Brand, an egomaniacal, billionaire industrialist who’s obsessed with building the tallest tower in North America. (Gosh, an arrogant and abrasive real estate mogul who’s preoccupied with size … who could have been the possible inspiration for this character?) When he once again forgets the birthday of his 11-year-old daughter, Rebecca (Malina Weissman), his neglected wife, Lara (Garner), insists that he get her the gift she really wants to make up for it: a cat. Naturally, Tom hates cats.
But between abrupt business meetings and terse exchanges with his older son/protege, David (Robbie Amell), Tom finds time to stop by a pet store and pick up a cat. This is no ordinary pet store, though. This is like some creepy curiosity shop Harry Potter would wander into in Diagon Alley. There, Walken’s Mr. Perkins says a few cryptic things to him, hands him an angry-looking, gray-and-white fluffball named Mr. Fuzzypants and sends him on his way with a bowl and a carrying case.
The way the actual body swap goes down — if you can call it that, because it’s unclear whether the cat conversely ends up inside Tom’s body — is sort of adorably retro. He literally gets zapped by lightning while standing at the top of his skyscraper. At the hospital, while Tom lies in coma, his soul or spirit or personality or whatever magically has transferred inside Mr. Fuzzypants.
Madcap hilarity ensues, as Tom-in-cat-form pees inside an expensive handbag belonging to his boozy ex-wife (Hines), leaps into the kitchen cabinet to eat an entire box of cereal and struggles to use a pen and an iPad. So much of what the cat gets himself into is so insane and so cheesy-looking that it’s good for a goofy giggle — including the overall fact that his mouth doesn’t even move. We’re just hearing his thoughts while the other characters think he’s meowing. That’s how low-budget this whole endeavor is. I will admit I enjoyed the sequence in which Mr. Fuzzypants figures out how to open a decanter of 50-year-old Scotch, pours it into a crystal ashtray and then laps it up like milk — all without the benefit of opposable thumbs! Smart kitty.
And Spacey playing a sardonic cat just makes so much sense. In the best of his performances, there’s often a rage simmering just below the surface, waiting to explode. And that’s Mr. Fuzzypants. It makes you long desperately for stronger writing — hell, halfway-decent writing — to make the most of Spacey’s abilities.
What’s worse, though, is that Tom is supposed to learn a lesson about the importance of family and right longstanding wrongs while being trapped inside the cat. This involves board meetings with old white men pressuring Tom’s son to take the company public. Capraesque, it is not. It’s barely even Cat Fancy. But you could do worse in August.