Nine Lives (2016)

Nine Lives could be a great children’s movie. A selfish workaholic reflects on and atones for his behavior after a freak accident puts him in a coma but traps his consciousness in a cat. Though snarly in his new feline form, he comes to understand the hurt he has caused his family and learns that he may be condemned to eating fish paste and peeing in litter boxes for the rest of his life. Whether you like talking animals or a redemption story or Norwegian forest cats, there’s something for everyone in the family.

But it’s hard to enjoy this movie because of, yes, star Kevin Spacey. His presence is enough to put off many viewers, and they’re not wrong for it. Watching his character, Tom Brand, manipulate those around him and then try to win their forgiveness is sickening, and I found it impossible to separate Tom’s misdeeds from the actor’s own criminal behavior.

It’s especially painful to see his family try to win his love again and again. Tom’s daughter, Rebecca (Malina Weissman), is about to turn eleven, that perfect age before puberty when a girl still adores her parents. Never mind that her father practically lives at work and is more concerned with building North America’s tallest skyscraper than he is with celebrating her birthday and getting her the cat she really wants. When fate intervenes and lands him at the doorstep of Purrkins Pet Shop run by the eccentric Felix Perkins (Christopher Walken), he reluctantly gives in and splurges on one Mr. Fuzzypants, who’s already used up seven of his nine lives.

Instead of heading home for Rebecca’s party though, Tom goes back to work and checks in with Ian (Mark Consuelos), a manager at his company who informs him that his building will not in fact be the tallest one in North America, or America for that matter. They fight on the rooftop during a storm, and really, everyone deserves what they get. When Tom comes to, he finds he’s now Mr. Fuzzypants and that Mr. Perkins can communicate with cat-kind. He also learns that he has just one week to set things right with his family if he does not want to spend the rest of his life on all fours.

Too bad he’s been a jerk to everyone. His wife, Lara (Jennifer Garner), and his son, David (Robbie Amell), from his first marriage somehow see past Tom’s sins. This is an abusive relationship, full stop. He neglects Lara and belittles David, and yet they constantly feel the need to earn his love. David, who also works for his dad, gets it worse; it’s as if Tom delights in humiliating his son, using his behavior as an excuse to boost his fragile ego.

The film would still need tweaking even if we’re working on the assumption that we’d recast Spacey’s role. The only reason that Nine Lives is watchable now is its robust cast, sans its lead. Garner and Cheryl Hines, who plays Tom’s first wife, complement each other, playing supportive friends rather than two women bickering over a bad man. I also enjoyed Weissman’s warm and honest performance. Jessica loves with such conviction that I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt no matter how wrongheaded I think she is. Then there’s Amell, who comes at you with a look of utter dejection and some Chris Pine blue eyes. As hard as the actors try, however, they are limited by their narrow roles. There’s nothing redeeming about Tom, and it’s hard to see why anyone ever like him. I wouldn’t mind a more sympathetic though still flawed lead.

The effects could also use some work. Mr. Fuzzypants, or the cats who portrayed him, are fluffy and adorable, and the special effects used to nail down certain sequences will make younger kids squeal. Tom’s office space and his new skyscraper are pitiful though, an embarrassment of green screen. It looks like the budget went into cats and Lara’s gorgeous flat and nothing else. I imagine Mr. Perkins, for example, has a delightfully weird shop, one which we get just a few glimpses of. A little more money in that direction could only add to this familiar but imaginative tale.

Released: 2016
Prod: Lisa Ellzey
Dir: Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer: Gwyn Lurie, Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Dan Antoniazzi, Ben Shiffrin
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Robbie Amell, Cheryl Hines, Mark Consuelos, Malina Weissman, Christopher Walken, Talitha Bateman, Teddy Sears
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019