“Ironically I could really use a mouse right now.”
Christopher Walken seems at home amongst the animals. Be it on-screen, amongst the cats in his fictional pet store, or in his real life residence. “There were four deer in the driveway this morning,” he recently told Parade of his home. “There were turkeys here yesterday. My wife saw a snake in the driveway the other day. Hummingbirds come every day almost to the minute. They come right up the window and stare at me. It’s almost as though they know I’m there.” Maybe the animals have been following his career with an increased interest lately. After all, the last time we saw him was in Eddie the Eagle, and the last time we heard him was The Jungle Book. We now find him inside a strangely star-studded talking cat comedy.
Nine Lives is more Garfield than Ted, but actively works to separate itself from the former. Kevin Spacey is Tom Brand, a big-billionaire businessman, think Frank Underwood turned down to four. He misses birthdays and fails to give his loving family enough attention. He plans to give to his daughter the cat she’s always wanted as a last minute birthday present, but suddenly, he is the cat. Hijinks ensue as he tries to tell his daughter and worried wife (Jessica Garner) that this moggy is actually a man. Walken, in a role well within his comfort zone, chaperones some of this chaos.
From the offset it is clear that Spacey’s heart isn’t in this, and frankly, he’s given no reason to change that. Spacey plays fast and loose with the term ‘acting’ as he barrels through the dime-a-dozen script on auto-pilot. Everything about Brand feels like a watered-down version of his House of Cards anti-hero – even his hair is Underwood’s. It’s a shame his cutting edge doesn’t also carry over. Snips, quips and insults are banded around, but with the lacklustre delivery of a man hitting his mark, rather than smashing through it.
Things only kick into gear when Brand meets Mr. Perkins (Walken), owner of Purrkins’ Pet Store, and the two giants patter off one another. Sparks fail to fly, but just the sight of the two greats face to face is enough to briefly satisfy older viewers. Walken at least manages to breathe a warm carelessness into his character. You can feel his enjoyment in having free-PG-rein and nothing to lose, or gain.
While on the subject of great actors, let us mention Jennifer Garner. Mention is all we can do, as the Dallas Buyers’ Club actor is again confined to the same ‘mom’ role that she frequently finds herself slotted into. She is given little to do but over act to a lightweight script. She is the normal person around which all the ‘chaos’ swirls, yet those meant to contrast with her simply come out a danker shade of beige. That is all except Robbie Amell, who does an admirable job stepping out from under his brother’s hooded shadow.
Any character development has come straight out of Kids Films 101, with no character progressing past an archetype. The narrative after Kevin gets his claws, simply moves from one Instagrammable moment to the next. It doesn’t just go to the well too often, it practically renders it bare.
Some credit must go to director Barry Sonnenfeld, of Men in Black fame, for keeping Nine Lives remotely on track. Animals are famously hard to work with, as are children, and when the acting is as comically exaggerated as it is, it’s a nice surprise not to be cringing more often. He keeps the film progressing, even if that comes at the cost of having to see a cat fall over 50-odd times. Some of Spacey’s snarls do push the adult boundary, tackling suicide and alcohol, but these seem shoehorned into updating a trim, yet saggy story. Nine Lives does produce laughs, some strangely at George W. Bush’s expense, but they are only plasters covering caverns.
It all feels a little Disney Channel. The acting is so artificially energetic that I expected Zach and Cody to pop up and the moral is so wholesome that I was disappointed Mickey Mouse didn’t vomit it at us from his ivory castle. Greenscreens litter the outdoor scenes, with such little attempt to cover it up that I wondered if I had slipped into a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Nine Lives screams out for a rousing presence. Sonnenfield’s Big Trouble star, Tim Allen would have given this film a palpable pulse back in 1999, coincidentally, the last time the film may’ve felt relevant. But he isn’t here, and the film doesn’t. It seems totally out of place and out of time, especially in a world in which Paddington has proved that live-action, animal-centered family films can be clever, funny and original.
Cats may have Nine Lives, but we only have one, and I wouldn’t recommend spending yours in the presence of this paint-by-numbers family caper. Me-Out.
Images courtesy of Funny Women and Nerdist respectively.