If anyone was ever to remake The NeverEnding Story, I would bet dollars-to-donuts Christopher Walken would play the owner of the bookshop Bastian steals from. Alongside his many supporting roles in an eclectic array of films, Walken has somehow become the go-to actor to play “the mystical shopkeeper.” Okay, yes, it’s only been twice now, but in both Click and the new cat-tastrophe (oh my gah… I can’t believe I just did that!), Nine Lives, it becomes clear Walken is a little too bemused by the parody of himself. There’s no life left in his once Oscar-winning persona, a noticeable problem that infects everything else around it. There’s something to be said for an actor elevating a film that seems otherwise thrown together, but when it feels like he — alongside Kevin Spacey, another professional stalwart that doesn’t belong anywhere near a film like this — isn’t even attempting to give 110%, that not only affects those around him from giving their all, but it telegraphs to the viewer that the film isn’t worth their time.
A good example for this is The Fifth Element, a film that could have been a disaster of Jupiter Ascending proportions had it not been for every single actor just letting loose and going for it, delivering terrific performances as if the film was poised to win every Oscar category. Of course, the actors involved had the advantage of working with a well-written script. Unfortunately, Nine Lives can’t hold up on that front either.
Basically what amounts to The Shaggy Dog for cat lovers, Tom Brand (Spacey) is a billionaire tycoon who *gasp* spends all of his time at work attempting to build his ego… er… the tallest building in the United States, all but ignoring his patient trophy wife, Lara (sorry Jennifer Garner), and two kids — grown-up David (Robbie Amell) and eleven year-old Rebecca (Malina Weissman). Rebecca’s one birthday wish is a cat, so when Tom reluctantly decides to grant that wish, some mystical force that’s never truly explained diverts him to a scary back-alley pet shop owned by Walken. But before he can get home to surprise his daughter with her new feline friend, Tom is called back to the office where he accidentally falls off the roof and (miraculously) survives. It’s this incident that deposits Tom’s consciousness into the cat while his body is left to wallow in a coma. And according to Walken, Tom only has until his body gives up to make amends for his absence.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are several subplots woven into the film, most of which go absolutely nowhere. The secondary plot involves a takeover of Tom’s company by a ridiculously smarmy employee (Mark Consuelos) who essentially wants to see Tom die so that he can convince the board members to allow the company to go public, a plan David tries desperately to thwart in Tom’s absence. Though that does come to a satisfactorily absurd conclusion, there are a couple of other C-plots, including one involving a possible affair between Lara and her realtor, and one surrounding the bullying of Rebecaa at the hands of Tom’s ex-wife’s daughter (Talitha Bateman), that go absolutely nowhere. In a well-written script, both storylines would have been used to strengthen Tom’s journey and add depth to the supporting characters, but here, they simply feel like unnecessary fodder to pad the run time. It’s a shame, because I would have liked to have explored these ideas more and to see how these incidents help Tom understand why his presence in their lives is so important. Though the filmmakers intend for this to be true, it just isn’t, and because of that, none of the characters grow, ending the film at pretty much the same place they were at the beginning.
But none of that compares to the incredibly weak CGI. There are a lot of very cute and adorable moments that involve… the real cat. You know, the one that isn’t as fake as a second-grade science project. I get that the producers wouldn’t have been able to make the movie without some CGI, however, when director Barry Sonnenfeld puts the cat into situations that a real cat would never be able to do, the horrendous graphics pulled me right out of the movie by turning itself into a farce. Because the scenes that included a real cat (or at least the ones that felt like it was a real cat) were fun and natural, had Sonnenfeld chosen to keep all acts as true to a real cat as possible, I believe it would have kept the film from devolving into something a six-year-old would scoff at.
Spacey has made a career out of playing the hard-ass superior, mainly because he does it so well. But here, even though he isn’t technically on screen for the majority of the film, it almost feels as if he, like Walken, is consciously delivering a parody of that persona rather than actually attempting to generate something more from that base. This lack of interest trickles over into the supporting cast, including Cheryl Hines and Amell, who follow the lead of our two major players (and to a lesser degree, Garner) and turn in performances that give off a vibe that this film is somehow beneath them.
And if that’s truly the case, I have to wonder why they took the job in the first place, and why Sonnenfeld, an acclaimed director in his own right, would have signed on to do a film that pretends to have fun but in the end is simply going through the motions. I’m reminded of an episode of The Big Bang Theory when Penny agrees to make a sequel to her gawd-awful ape movie. At one point she asks the director to try a scene again, and he balks, telling her there’s no point since this is just part of his deal to secure funding for something better. Nine Lives is essentially that movie — the movie everyone agreed to do as part of a contract that would lead them to something they actually wanted to do. But had they found a way to truly capture the magic of the idea, Nine Lives could very well have been a harmless delight instead of just an unforgiving yawn.
My grade: C-
Next week, new movies include Pete’s Dragon and Florence Foster Jenkins. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.