“Murder of a Cat” is that rare post-“Little Miss Sunshine” laffer that could actually stand to be quirkier. Somehow, despite all the eccentric bathrobes and vintage sweaters and bad wigs, despite the involvement of “Sunshine” star Greg Kinnear and “Juno” vet J.K. Simmons, this weird little detective story never quite manages to establish its own personality. After years of watching hubby Sam Raimi direct, first-timer Gillian Greene plucked a script off the Black List and made a go of it, and the result feels like someone won a contest where the grand prize meant getting to make a movie.
Actually, the real winners here are co-writers Christian Magalhaes and Robert Snow, whose well-loved spec script made the rounds in Hollywood and helped land them staff writing gigs on “New Girl.” At a moment when douchebag comedy is king, these guys serve up unapologetically dorky counterprogramming, where the main character is a thirtysomething virgin and the inspirations are mostly literary. The result plays like a classic Encyclopedia Brown case, if the boy detective were still sleuthing from the spare room of his mom’s house to this day.
As the title suggests, the mystery begins with the death of Mouser, a contented housecat who’d lived well into the double digits. Cats die every day, but there’s something especially suspicious about Mouser’s demise, considering that this kitty’s corpse is found impaled by an arrow. Of all the jokes in the film, the first sight of Mouser’s dead body is one gag the pic cannot afford to botch, and yet Greene, an avowed animal lover, opts not to play the macabre beat for laughs, thereby lending a certain validity to her man-child protagonist, Clinton Moisey (Fran Kranz), and his foolhardy plan to bring the cat’s killer to justice.
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Unfortunately, the premise simply isn’t as funny with Clinton seeming justified in his quest. The character was conceived in the vein of “Confederacy of Dunces” oaf Ignatius J. Reilly, who battles the impression of his own irrelevance with a constant stream of grandiloquent nonsense. Though undeniably over-the-top, Kranz has stopped one step shy of making Clinton a figure worthy of a full-blown “Saturday Night Live” sketch, or perhaps another Napoleon Dynamite. Had he played it just a bit more specific, “Murder of a Cat” might have been the first of many tales to feature this endearing buffoon, instead of just a grating one-off.
While Kranz fumbles at being eccentric, the supporting cast has the easier task of playing it straight. Blythe Danner is the picture of patience as Clinton’s fuddy-duddy mother; Kinnear brings surprising range to the one-joke role of a frustrated actor stuck operating a Walmart-like superstore (complete with hammy local-TV commercials); and Simmons can barely keep from cracking up as the sheriff tasked with aiding Clinton’s investigation. The case takes many a twist and eventually leads to a far bigger criminal operation, though the surprises are suffocated by Clinton’s tendency to spout elaborate conspiracies before anyone has a chance to process the information.
His first big breakthrough is discovering that Mouser had been “moonlighting” — slipping out to be with a funky gal named Greta (Nikki Reed), who knows the cat as “Horatio.” In real life, Greta would simply be too cool to be caught dead with a comicbook-collecting, custom-action-figure-making momma’s boy like Clinton, but every nerd needs a fantasy, and Reed rises to the challenge. Still, there’s something off in the pic’s chemistry, and the surest clue that Greene and the screenwriters are operating on different wavelengths can be found in the film’s score, a brassy bit of overkill determined to turn “Murder of a Cat” into a legit retro-detective movie, when truth be told, there’s barely enough material here to sustain a short film.