At this point, the prospect of another chapter in the “Saw” series might conceivably be worse — or, perhaps, one of those movies in which the French director Bruno Dumont tries to pass off his ponderous metaphysical misanthropy as “light and funny.” Really, though, one would be hard-pressed to think of a contemporary movie form more torturous to sit through than the cutesy-wacky anthropomorphic celebrity-voiced pet comedy.
The thing that’s so excruciating about films like “Garfield: The Movie,” “Cats & Dogs,” “Beverly Hills Chiuahua,” or the new “Nine Lives” — starring Kevin Spacey as the voice of a disgruntled kitty cat named Mister Fuzzypants; are you tumbling out of your chair with laughter yet? — is not that they’re comedies about talking animals. (Many fantastic animated movies are comedies about talking animals.) It’s that they’re made by people laboring under the delusion that an animal who talks is in itself funny. News flash: It is not. It’s funny only if you believe that the zaniest special-effects comedy of 1964 starring the voice of Shecky Green is funny.
Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of “Nine Lives,” is that kind of a filmmaker: a glorified rib-nudger, an FX-meets-vaudeville throwback. In “Nine Lives,” it’s supposed to be a major hoot that Spacey’s Tom Brand, a vaguely Trumpian New York entrepreneur obsessed with building the tallest, longest skyscraper in America, gets into a freak accident that transfers his personality into the body of a cat. (Meanwhile, the body of Brand himself lies in a coma. No, it doesn’t really make sense.) None of the members of his family can hear the cat talking, and neither can his back-stabbing business associates. That privilege is reserved for those of us in the audience. We’re the ones who are supposed to be cracking up whenever Mister Fuzzypants says something like “Oh, look, Satan’s over!” (as his lush of an ex-wife wanders into the room) or “No, thank you! I have the rug!” after his owner (Jennifer Garner), who is actually his current wife, directs him toward the litter box.
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You can imagine this movie being one infinitesimal notch funnier — which is to say, a small notch above zero — if Rodney Dangerfield had been speaking the lines. The actual fluffy feline who appears in the role of Mister Fuzzypants wears an expression of vaguely depressive boredom that, in theory, is supposed to mirror the Spacey dyspepsia. But Spacey, who is known in showbiz circles for his wicked improvisations, could probably have made up wittier dialogue in his sleep. He’s hamstrung by this glum paycheck dud, and so is everyone else. “Nine Lives” is a lot like a cat: It occasionally bestirs itself, and it would like to be stroked with love, but mostly it just sits there. It’s a pet farce so flat it makes you long for the Lubitsch touch of the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” comedies.
The film opens with a montage of cat videos, and one reason the script is so lame is that the whole reductive reasoning behind this French-Chinese co-production may have come down to: “Cat videos are hot! Huge demo! Let’s make a movie full of that stuff!” In other words, let’s lay on the cat slapstick — and Sonnenfeld does. See Mister Fuzzypants try to hold a pen and scrawl a note! See Mister Fuzzypants try to pour out a decanter of 50-year-old Scotch! See him leap onto counters and up walls, inch along the ledges of a Fifth Avenue high-rise, and fall flat on his feline back! In the movie, some of these routines actually do get turned into amateur cat videos, and it’s a little mystifying why, since they pale next to the real thing.
The big yawn of a plot is about how Brand’s associates attempt to sell off his company while he’s in a coma. Can Fuzzypants foil their plan? It should be noted that Christopher Walken is on hand, as a kind of eccentric “Gremlins”-shop-owner-meets-cat-fancier. The fur on Walken’s head stands up nearly as tall as one of Brand’s buildings, and the character is supposed to be a “cat whisperer,” which means that he, along with the audience, is lucky enough to hear all those hi-larious lines that issue from the inner voice of Mister Fuzzypants. There’s probably a funny mainstream comedy to be made (even for kids) that centers on a rascal of a talking animal. But that won’t happen until the people who make it figure out that it isn’t enough to hear an animal talk. He (or she) has got to say really funny things.