Here’s my theory: Nine Lives’s producers — EuropaCorp — figured if they squeezed this thing out on Suicide Squad weekend, maybe they would be able to get it off their desks with relatively little uproar. A few poor and unassuming families at a Sunday matinee would suffer and grapple with some post-traumatic stress. But so it must go, when star power and a reasonable investment necessitates it. The strategy worked. But the rationale behind it feels not dissimilar to some covert, morally disreputable government campaign: hit the target (a paltry few million, in this case), leave some undesirable casualties, and recede, sight unseen, back into the shadows.
For those of us who saw Nine Lives this weekend, however, it’s hard not to wonder: Was recouping $6.5 million on a $30 million budget worth it? There are still those poor families — expecting a mere Tim-Allen-Shaggy Dog flip distinguished by the warm, distinctive vocal stylings of Kevin Spacey — who left their hometown multiplexes either bewildered and deeply shaken, struggling to come to terms with a film with far more disturbing valences than its Joker-studded opening-weekend competition.
Beware Nine Lives. It may only stay in theaters for another week, but do not foist a minute of this on a person who is struggling with feelings of self-doubt, or indeed, any kind of psychological malaise, let alone a young child. The Barry Sonnenfeld-directed movie is positioned as a comedy, but that descriptor extends only as far as the interludes of a CGI cat making outrageous, slo-mo parkour leaps across various expensive pieces of furniture. These are mere window dressing — cinematic semicolons between scenes of deep-seated family dysfunction and remorseless corporate skullduggery.
The rough concept of the movie is as follows: New York construction magnate Tom Brand (Kevin Spacey) is an appalling composite of amoral capitalist archetypes, and dangerously close to Donald Trump in his professional description. Despite this, we’re expected to roughly align our sympathies with him, even though his primary purpose in life — to the detriment of all his loved ones and associates — is to build the tallest building in America. The film is littered with Freudian diagrams of the skyscraper and its rival monolith in Chicago; arguably, the urban phalluses get as much screen time as the pivotal cat.
The film spends roughly 25-30 minutes setting up its seamy business world, in which a in-company competitor (Mark Consuelos) plays Brand’s ruthless usurper. It also lays the groundwork for Brand’s complete disregard for his daughter (Malina Weissman) and wife (Jennifer Garner, in the saddest, most Bechdel-goading role I’ve ever seen an accomplished actress, or any actress, been forced to play on film this year).
Finally, the cat plot kicks into third gear, when Brand goes to hurriedly buy a cat for his daughter’s 11th birthday from a Potter-core ye olde cat shop — “Purrkins’s” — owned by a mystical, shock-haired Christopher Walken. In not-short-enough order, it becomes clear that Walken is a “cat whisperer” who has orchestrated the body swap to teach Brand an obscure lesson — mostly about spending more time doing cute dances with his daughter, and ultimately less about the karmic pitfalls of being a greedy neo-con.
The setup is discomfiting and bewildering, but it’s nothing compared to the rest of the film. Eerily, Brand-the-cat’s voiceover disappears for significant stretches, as if they couldn’t get keep Spacey in the sound booth for long enough. We watch “Mr. Fuzzypants” relieving himself in handbags, getting drunk on expensive cognac, clawing to shreds the suits of his corporate nemeses, and, generally, looking as garish as the worst computerized creations of Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black franchise, Ballchinians and beyond.
This may be obvious by now, but this is not a film for the cat lover. It is, in fact, aggressively anti-feline, despite the Lil Bub cameo in the denouement. Brand’s theory that cats are cruel, self-interested creatures is upheld at the end of the film, as he walks into a clearly-labeled cat store to ask for a dog. Beyond this, Nine Lives implies that cats are only as greedy and disingenuous as the better part of the human race. This is dark, dark stuff.
WARNING: Particularly chilling plot details from Nine Lives follow below.
It’s hard to pick the most richly disturbing element of this movie. I’ve already touched on Garner’s ever-accommodating housewife character, who only rises to assert herself when her husband’s empire is threatened. But there’s also Cheryl Hines’s thin stereotype of an invasive, vaguely-alcoholic ex-wife that the film seeks to demonize at every possible juncture.
Then there’s the fact that while Brand is inhabiting the cat, he is in the hospital in a coma from which there are no signs that he will awake. Family members — who should loathe Brand personally a lot more than they ever do — fret at his bedside for seemingly every moment of it. Meanwhile, Iago-esque human wraith Consuelos haunts the hospital corridors, attempting to ascertain confidential medical information and coerce Garner and roving neuropsychologists alike into “unplugging” Brand (the word is used what feels like dozens of times).
The climax of the film relies on a horrifying bit of dramatic irony: the film’s central “joke.” Sonnenfeld spends roughly 15-20 minutes making the audience (and Spacey-Brand the cat) believe that Amell’s character is running to commit suicide by jumping off the Brand skyscraper — seemingly, all because he has ruined the family business in his father’s absence. Note: as brutally outlined in the exposition, the son’s obsession with pleasing his father is based on a long tradition of bullying and why-are-you-such-a-pussy-son tactics on Spacey-Brand’s part.
Ultimately, though, it turns out that Brand the Younger was simply — and nonsensically — planning on parachuting into the diabolical Consuelos’s unveiling of the new version of the company, with esoteric documentation revealing that the Brand family owns it after all. This macabre fake-out is a horrible thing to put a child through — unjustified by any of the action that leads up to it. In the midst of this, Mister Fuzzypants dies by jumping off the skyscraper with Amell, using the eighth of his nine lives and awakening Spacey-Brand.
The film ends with a coldly abrupt epilogue. At no point does Spacey’s character demonstrate convincingly that he has made the obligatory Scrooge-esque transition from self-interested demagogue to kind-hearted, generous family man. Every character is left as one-dimensional as they were upon film presentation — unredeemed and unhappy except, presumably, from a socioeconomic standpoint.
This is a movie about how society revolves around myopic, pathologically self-interested rich people, and always will, and how cats as a species are, in some cryptic way, an apt reflection of this chilling truth. It’s unapologetic enough to have already elicited readings as a subversive masterpiece from the likes of Blair Witch screenwriter Simon Barrett.
It’s relevant that the film — like Squad, ironically — seems to have changed tones midstream. A EuropaCorp producer — who unexpectedly passed away during the making of the film, to make things even more grim — somehow envisioned this as a “comedy for adults” before the pathetic, bungled attempt to reposition it as family friendly farce.
Nine Lives’s meditations on mortality and the darkest realms of the human psyche feel, by any yardstick, like more potent nightmare-fuel kids than the bloodless PG-13 violence of Squad. Was Sonnenfeld’s movie even intended as a cat film originally? Or some mentally-deficient-Billy Wilder-esque, sadistic comedy about the absurdity of Western social and political mores?
In the end, the latter aspect shines through much more definitively, with moral compass frantically malfunctioning. This is the bleakest and most inexplicable film I’ve seen in some years.
Photos via Takashi Seida, EuropaCorp