As a published film critic for the past 12 years, I usually know the crux of a film review before the credits begin to roll. That changed Saturday as I left a recent screening of Nine Lives. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” said an unapologetic father said to his children as they left the theater following this Kevin-Spacey-is-trapped-inside-a-cat feature. “At least there were no awful cat puns.” This prompted his daughter to respond, “Yeah, but I still don’t think it was a very good movie.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a spot-on assessment of this family-friendly film. If you want drippingly cheesy puns or obnoxious pop music covers while animated animals fart and dance, go see whatever 3-D cartoon is aimed at preteen viewers this week — Nine Lives deftly avoids most of those pitfalls. What it offers instead is an adequately average plot showcasing a cast of several acclaimed actors exchanging their previous prestige for a chance to entertain both parents and their kids. The result may be as utterly forgettable as the remains of a litter box (and there is one pet-poop joke in the film), but it is nowhere near as offensive as those with more discriminating cinematic tastes may have anticipated.
Spacey portrays Tom Brand, a pompous CEO more concerned with building North America’s tallest skyscraper than with the 11th birthday of his young daughter (Malina Weissman), his doting-but-alienated wife (Jennifer Garner) or the business aspirations of his son (Robbie Amell) — until a lightning bolt sets in motion a chain of events that puts Brand in a comma and traps his conscience inside the pet cat he had just purchased for his child.
Christopher Walken is entrusted with the role of “cat whisperer,” the owner of the pet store from whence the cat came from, who is able to telepathically communicate with the Brand-in-Mr. Fuzzypants, and he advises Spacey’s character to concentrate more on what he did to get in this situation than focusing on how to get out of it. Mild hilarity ensues when a CGI-version of the cat participates in some family-friendly physical comedy, while an evil corporate lackey (Mark Consuelos) maneuvers to take over Brand’s company in his absence and derail the skyscraper’s completion and opening ceremony.
This big screen endeavor did not look appealing from the outset. Spacey’s opening narration (“You think this is cute, don’t you? People are so desperate for something to hold onto. But, no matter how lonely you are, a cat is not a person.”) sets a smarmy and condescending tone with its presumed audience. This apprehension was prolonged in the first scene when our protagonist skydived from a plane, landing on the top floor of his still-under-construction skyscraper to hold a press conference about the project’s importance.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld wisely limits his main character’s self-loathing meta-commentary early on and avoids the more obvious cat puns but gives the rest of his players very little to work with. Jennifer Garner must have been on the losing end of her divorce from Ben Affleck to take a role that often forces her to play direct to the camera as a beleaguered stepmother to a cloying, doe-eyed Weissman. To be fair, though, any teenaged thespian would have trouble believably reciting such naïve lines as, “I know it sounds stupid, but sometimes I think my dad is looking out for me through the cat.” For his part, Walken eschews his usual trademark strangeness and self-aggrandizing odd line-readings (lately reserved for Adam Sandler yuk-fests) and manages to play his part fairly straightforward and even with a bit of uncharacteristic tenderness.
As the prescient pair leaving the theater Saturday summarized, Nine Lives is not as bad as feared, but that faint praise does not make it much more than average. If you are a cat person or a parent looking for largely inoffensive film fare, you will probably chuckle at the animal antics. Others may just accept that something not being horrible is enough to entertain just about anyone in the family for nearly 90 minutes. Rated PG for language and some rough humor.
Now playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark and Epic of Hendersonville.