The Following Contains Spoilers for Nine Lives.
I normally don’t do spoiler reviews here. Spoilers aren’t necessary for a review to get a point across… most of the time. But rules were meant to be broken for films like Nine Lives, a film with the simple fantasy family film premise of a man being magically turned into a cat so he can right his wrongs and become a better man to his family… and takes it to massively dark places. No need for allusion. No need for the consideration of a childhood innocence. This is a movie about alcoholism, human apathy and horrendous CG cats. Watching Nine Lives was one of the more surprising cinematic experiences in 2016. Going in expecting a stupid romp from an early to mid 2000s era ABC Family TV movie and finding Nine Lives, a film where death is a looming specter and a family is broken apart. This may have been given a PG rating by the MPAA for “thematic elements, language and some rude humor”, but it should have been rated an R for “rude drunkenness, disturbing imagery and being cripplingly depressing.”
Nine Lives concerns one Tom Brand (Kevin Spacey), a rich business man who runs Firebrand, a mega conglomerate of some vague sort. He’s an asshole tycoon who concerns himself with his money and appearance in an almost Donald Trump-like fashion. He loves himself, not caring one iota for anything around him. This includes his employee/son David (Robbie Amell) who wants his father to respect him, his wife Lara (Jennifer Garner) who wants him to do better as a family man and Rebecca (Malina Weissman) who seems genuinely neglected since her father is working. And I don’t mean “Disney Dad Who’s Too Good At His Job to Care for His Kids” kind of father. I mean “Crazy Ego Driven Monster Who’s Running His Corporation into The Ground By Being Obsessed with Having the Tallest Building in the World” kind of father. You know the type.
At this point, it seems clear that Kevin Spacey was roped into some kind of contract snafu, one involving a clause that forced him to do this or else lose a large sum of money. Spacey’s lazy both on screen and off, but it especially shows before he becomes a feline. Nine Lives at least seems accommodating for this clearly uncaring Shakespearean level Oscar winning actor. After all, most of his scenes are shot on easily build-able four wall sets and with one or two actors as others are giving reactions during a cut without him. Every delivery of Spacey has the charm of a man waiting to pick up his dry cleaning after coming too early. Spacey is so uninvolved that his care for his family is about as convincing as the green screened backgrounds as he drives over to begrudgingly get his daughter a cat for her birthday. The disdain in his performance mirrors his character, but never makes it believable in universe.
Spacey buys said cat via a mysterious little shop he’s lead to by an extremely poor GPS that easily leads him astray after he throws it down. This shop – Purrkins – is owned by Felix Perkins as played by Christopher Walken, who is basically reprising his mysterious store clerk role from 2006’s Click by way of a more animated Willy Wonka style humble magician. The two Oscar winning actors are face-to-face, allowing Christopher Walken’s to display his typical alien charm and Spacey to be slightly brighter than his is the rest of the time, probably because he’s thinking of how he can better hone his Walken impression. This leads Spacey to be chosen by a cat – since, as Walken says in a Yakov Schmirnoff level logic puzzle, “the cat chooses you” – whom Spacey brings to an emergency meeting on the roof of his building. This meeting with his up and coming young staffer Ian (Mark Consuelos) leads to a Christopher Nolan-style rainy roof encounter in which lightening strikes the building, causing Spacey and cat to hang on for dear life before Consuelos allows them to fall. Luckily, Spacey manages to swing himself and the cat through a window, before the screen cuts to black.
Obviously, this all seems like a cut and dry first act. Nothing weird or contrived about anything going on here at all. Yet, this is where Nine Lives becomes more than your average “multi-billionaire doesn’t pay enough attention to his family and gets a cat” story taught by the likes of Joseph Campbell. No, this is a story of a man coming to the brink of death through the prism of a cat. The first shot of him as a cat from his POV, looking at his own lifeless body. It’s a shot that reminds us why director Barry Sonnenfeld helped The Coen Brothers create their visual flair when he worked as their cinematographer as far back as Blood Simple. It’s a shot that has our protagonist stare death directly in the face and – by proxy – the audience of small children and the parents they dragged there. It’s the watershed moment for Nine Lives, where things are changed permanently.
Nine Lives then separates into three distinctively misguided story threads. All of them are motivated by the family friendly theme of grief as Spacey’s wife, son and daughter deal with the potential death of the man who seemed like a shadow in their lives. Garner, Amell and Weissman each treat this bewildering subplot with unflappable genuine heart, as the fast approaching potential death of the big man in their lives slowly comes to each of them. Garner puts her plans to leave Spacey on hold because his last act was getting the cat for their daughter. Amell is trying to keep his father’s dream of having the tallest building in the US in a desperate attempt to hopefully gain his respect if he ever wakes up. Weissman comes to the realization that her father’s soul is inside her cat, all while trying to convince everyone of the truth to the point of tears. Despite the work of the actors here, the decision on the part of the filmmakers to treat this ticking clock of “your body will die if you don’t behave” for Spacey brings the tonal consistency of Nine Lives to a crashing halt. This storyline is treated so seriously that Garner is asked to sign a DNR and sits with Weissman to show her brochures that include “What Do To When They Don’t Wake Up.” Children will likely be confused by any of these heavy themes and their parents will spend more time focusing on how to explain this to them than they will paying attention to anything that’s going on.
And how does Kevin Spacey react to his family crumbling apart in front of him? Why, he makes sarcastic Garfield style comments that sound like they were recorded in Spacey’s House of Cards trailer bathroom with as much disdain as possible. DUH! Well, that and manage to sneak inside his liquor cabinet & drink high priced scotch from a bowl because he has priorities. Alcoholism is a weird recurring motif in Nine Lives, right down to Spacey’s ex-wife and Amell’s mother (Cheryl Hines) telling her son to drink as a form of getting through grief. Both are just a few of the many examples that showcase Nine Lives as a film filled with true human apathy. Spacey’s desire to get out of this cat body aren’t motivated as much by the loss and pain his family is going through as much as selfish desires. Namely, his desire to erect his giant tower and attempt to keep Walken from neutering him.
When the change of heart comes to pass for Spacey, there isn’t much earned out of it. By the end of Nine Lives – in which Spacey cat tries to save Amell from an implied suicide that turns out to be a parachute stunt while the cat falls to its death just in time for Spacey to return to his body – nothing really matters. Spacey just takes the lesson that he should be his same asshole self, but with his family present. He doesn’t even learn to love cats, instead ending Nine Lives on a flat lifeless sitcom joke about wanting to get his daughter a dog instead. It’s the perfect bitter dispassionate note for Nine Lives to end on. One where any sort of heart or moral lesson results in a bland joke and CG cat hijinks. CG hijinks animated around a cat who dies yet is somehow resurrected. Nine Lives‘ attempts to provide some form of emotional alleviation over doing things like having a cat die from falling off a giant skyscraper seem like the work of its five separate writers taking a crack at this idea and the studio melding them together into one jumbled mess.
Nine Lives is simply a baffling example of cinema. A film where its lead couldn’t care less on and off screen while his supporting cast tries to put their all into tonally backwards material. A movie with three conflict stories of grief, corporate backstabbing and horrid CG cat hijinks. A film where the idea of a young girl’s absent father dying is followed up with her father in a cat’s body nearly mauling someone to death. A film that only kept me engaged out of a confused curiosity for the train wreck. Nine Lives won’t be in theaters too long, but despite its now reserved placement on my Worst of 2016 list, it’s one I’d oddly recommend once it reaches home video for anyone curious about a jumbled mess of an idea that should have been aborted from the start. Not necessarily with children in the room, mind you. Unless you’re willing to broach topics like the death of a loved one or back deal corporate dealings. Or maybe even an example of anti-work ethic as they stare into Kevin Spacey’s dead eyes.
Rating: 0.5 out of 5 Death Brochures