Nine Lives (2016)

08/06/2016  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

Here are three things I know about Nine Lives:

  1. It is a children’s movie in which Christopher Walken turns Kevin Spacey into a cat.
  2. It is also a movie heavily invested in exploring the five stages of grief.
  3. It was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, he of The Addams Family and Men in Black fame, who completely fails to reconcile these first two points. The result is a film whose radical tonal shifts feel like an attempt to capture the sort of weepy thematic whiplash at which Pixar so often excels.

Kevin Spacey plays Tom Brand, your stereotypical business mogul who has no time for his family. He’s sort of like a kid-friendly, un-Dixie-fried version of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood. His company is about to open the largest skyscraper in the country, and he can’t step away from that for two seconds to deal with his wife Lara (Jennifer Garner), son David (Arrow‘s Robbie Amell) or young daughter Rebecca (Malina Weissman). Rebecca wants a cat for her 11th birthday, and a trip to a magical pet store run by Mr. Walken leaves a reluctant Tom with a furry new companion. A slight detour finds Tom taking a tumble off the roof of his own building, only to wake up to find his human body comatose and his mind trapped in the body of Rebecca’s new cat. Walken then reappears to explain his predicament: Tom must learn to be a better father and husband, or live out the rest of his days as a house-cat.

The cat’s dead-eyed stare says more than any voiceover ever could.

How long does Tom have in his cat body? There are a couple of ticking clocks at work here, both plots competing for screen time. Tom’s VP Ian (Mark Consuelos) is in a big hurry to sell off the company against David and Lara’s wishes, whose main protest is that Tom isn’t technically dead yet. The doctors don’t give him long, though, and eventually the idea of pulling the plug enters the conversation. So Tom has to prove his love for his wife and kids before A) Ian can screw Tom’s family out of their own company, B) Lara signs a Do Not Resuscitate form, or C) Tom’s body just plain dies. This is a movie for children.

On top of all of this is the more pressing issue that Tom straight up hates being a cat. He spends most of the film fumbling around his penthouse apartment, desperately trying to scribble out messages to his family to let them know their new cat is actually him. But because he is, in fact, a cat, his messages always come out looking like a bunch of random scribbles or like a robot slowly gaining sentience.

“AM NOT ME. AM MAN.” – A written message from Tom, as a cat.

Acknowledging that this is supposed to be a movie for kids, Nine Lives offers plenty of cat-based slapstick, not to mention more feline puns than you can swing a… well, you know. We also get a couple dozen shots of a CGI cat flinging itself across the screen because that’s wacky and also because watching Jennifer Garner leap across the room to catch a CGI cat in slow motion is hi-larious. A couple of these scenes are admittedly pretty funny, particularly the one in which cat-Tom (oh like Tomcat, I just got that) tries with all his might to reach the liquor cabinet. Most of these scenes feel more like joke filler, though. Like they wrote the first draft of a gag, made a note to come back around to it, and then just forgot. It’s the movie paying lip service to its target audience of grade schoolers while just underneath the surface lies a story about a family processing grief.

See, while Tom scampers around on all fours, his wife and children are forced to deal with the very real possibility that Tom is never going to wake from his coma. It’s hard for them to grasp at first, as we see the Brand family — including Tom’s insufferable first wife (Cheryl Hines) — toast to his health while sharing stories about how he’s recovered from worse injuries. (Reminder: He just fell off the roof of the tallest building in America.) The first stage of grief is denial, and this is actually a poignant little scene illustrating the fact.

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Breaking: Tom is also a were-cat.

The fact that his family can’t understand Tom frustrates him, and he begins lashing out in anger, which would be stage #2. First he’s tearing up the wallpaper and drinking up all the good scotch; soon it becomes pissing in handbags and physically assaulting people. He then pleads with Christopher Walken to change him back (Bargaining), becomes sullen and moody as he sees his family moving on without him (Depression), and then finally resigned to the fact that he’s going to be a house-cat for the rest of his life (Acceptance). Nine Lives kind of bungles its handling of these later points, but the fact that it even tries, that it paints a portrait of the stages of grief in a way that children can grasp, is admirable.

Now, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the nutty manner in which this whole thing wraps itself up. So if you actually feel like seeing this movie and don’t want to know the ending, skip to the end.

***SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS TALKING CAT MOVIE***

The film’s dueling plots ultimately come to a head, forcing Tom to make a difficult choice that feels like a couple of bridges too far for the story that precedes them. He can either stay with his wife and daughter and comfort them as they prepare to pull the plug on his human body, or he can try to rescue his son, who insinuates that he’s going to kill himself by jumping off the roof of their building. Both instances offer Tom an opportunity to do right by his family, but the film ultimately chooses option B. This ends with David and Tom having an eye-to-eye moment as the two of them fall down the side of the building. Tom apologizes to his son, but since he’s a cat and nobody understands him, David is just like “CAT?! What are you doing here?” David then reveals he’s wearing a parachute and committing a corporate protest stunt against Ian selling the company as Cat-Tom is left to splat against the pavement. No, really. That’s it. That’s how Tom wakes up from his coma.

***END OF SPOILERS FOR THIS TALKING CAT MOVIE***

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Tom may love his wife, but you can tell by the way the cat flicks its tail that it HATES being in this movie.

Long story short: I don’t know how it took five separate screenwriters to come up with this hot mess, nor have I any idea how someone convinced Kevin Spacey to make what is essentially a late-era Eddie Murphy film. For better or worse, Nine Lives attempts to deal with a serious subject in a kid-friendly manner, and for that alone I can’t completely pan this film. It’s not brain-meltingly terrible in the manner of A Talking Cat!?!, but neither is it funny enough to sustain a full 90-minute feature. There are a million and one ways to make Nine Lives better, but hey, it could have been worse.

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Cat Puns
CGI pratfalls
Kevin Spacey's Bitter, Sardonic Voice-Over
A Running Gag About People Being Obsessed with Funny Cat Videos
A Genuine Attempt to Illustrate The Five Stages of Grief in a Way Kids Can Understand

About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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