My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
To a certain extent, the Kevin Spacey-as-sassy-feline comedy Nine Lives was screwed by timing. Considering the political climate of the past year and a half, there has never been a worse time to ask a mass audience to become emotionally invested in the spiritual growth of an arrogant, hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive New York billionaire intent on sticking his name on the biggest building in the world. True, Spacey’s character, Tom Brand, is overtly based on Richard Branson. A good rule of thumb for cinematic billionaires: If they’re introduced doing a crazy stunt, then they’re based on Branson. If their defining character is dumb hair, they’re likely to be modeled after the president-elect.
Tom is introduced leaping out of a plane, but he cuts a decidedly Trumpian figure all the same. He’s re-married to a decades-younger trophy wife (Jennifer Garner as Lara) who is also the mother of one of his pre-pubescent children, Rebecca (Malina Weissman), an 11-year-old girl who worships her dad despite his failings. Tom’s high-living first wife Madison (Cheryl Hines), meanwhile, is the mother of David Brand (Robbie Amell), who looks like a linebacker version of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, or Eric and/or Donald Trump Jr.
David looks like he could crush his father’s spine with an overly aggressive bear hug, but his father thinks he’ll never be a real man unless he pursues appropriately macho endeavors like sky-diving. And base-diving. That’s what men like Tom Brand do in Nine Lives. They leap out of planes and build enormous metal monuments to their greatness and ambition. Then they get turned into a pussycat named Mr. Fuzzypants by a magical cat wrangler. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Even though Nine Lives was released when our compassion for arrogant billionaires neared an all-time low, it would have failed egregiously no matter when it came out. It is, after all, a Kevin Spacey-as-sassy feline family comedy filled with bizarrely non-family-friendly elements. The film centers on a protagonist who hovers in a coma on the very edge of death for most of the film. It also includes the looming threat of public suicide in the third act, a plot perversely heavy on corporate back-stabbing and a relationship between the protagonist and his daughter so inappropriately romantic that I couldn’t help but think about the president-elect’s relationship with daughter Ivanka.
Rebecca is introduced re-watching a clip of her father at his flamboyant best on television for the 80th-something time. It’s supposed to be cute but instead comes off as obsessive, like she’s not just her father’s daughter but also his creepiest, most intense fan. After Tom enters into a coma, she tearfully watches videos of herself dancing with her dad while staring admiringly into his eyes, as if she never wants this daddy-daughter dance to end. Nine Lives is so committed to making Tom’s relationship with his daughter more intimate than his relationship with his actual wife that it manages to maintain a queasily incestuous vibe even after Tom’s spirit inhabits a sassy cat. There’s a weirdly romantic scene late in the film where Tom, now ensconced inside the body of a cat named Mr. Fuzzypants, dances with his daughter with the same bizarrely misplaced sense of romance that characterizes so many of their interactions.
It’s customary in metaphysical transformation redemption comedies to have a character work in marketing to convey that they are soul-sick. Nine Lives one-ups that old cliché by having its curmudgeonly protagonist fire the entire marketing department. Tom is in a fearsome hurry to get what he wants, which is to build the largest building in the world, and slap his big, dumb name on it. Family invariably takes a back seat, and Tom commits the signature sin of the metaphysical transformation bad-dad redemption comedy: He forgets his daughter’s birthday.
To make up for the oversight, Tom finds himself looking for a cat in a shop presided over by Christopher Walken in full-on magic pixie mode. Walken can be terrifying in the right role, but stick a bow tie on him, the way Nine Lives does, and have him refer to litter boxes repeatedly as “poopy boxes,” and he becomes an insufferable figure of whimsy.
Tom hates cats but Purr-kins pet store is not your typical pet store. No, it’s furtively a secret realm of magic, not unlike Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium in the piece-of-shit movie of the same name. Everything Perkins, Walken’s mystic cat-fancier, says is supposed to be enigmatic and rich with mystical portent, but Spacey undoubtedly ruined multiple takes by rolling his eyes whenever his fellow Oscar winner waxes philosophical about how we do not choose our cats so much as our cats choose us.
Rebecca eventually figures out why her new cat seems to have the personality of her father, goes to Purr-kins shop, and earnestly inquires, “Is this cat my dad?” Mr. Fuzzypants is in fact the girl’s father, but he travels a predictably strange road into the body of an off-brand Garfield, a poor man’s Heathcliff. Tom falls off the side of a building one rainy, ominous night, and due to some manner of metaphysical hoodoo, ends up inside the cat he purchased for his daughter as a gift, as his body just barely clings to life in a coma.
Nine Lives would have to be pretty goddamned hilarious to make audiences forget the nearly dead man in a coma at its core. It’s not. And that somehow isn’t even the darkest element of the film. That would be the strong suggestion that David Brand is so despondent that he will leap off his father’s building and plunge to his death. This turns out to be a fake-out, as David just wants to prove to his dad that he’s sufficiently masculine by climactically base-jumping off the building so that he can dazzle the press and the public. Even though David doesn’t actually attempt suicide, the heavy implication that he will makes the film even more perversely grim.
There’s a certain logic to casting Kevin Spacey as the voice and soul of a frolicsome feline. Like a cat, Spacey is cold, distant, prickly, and cantankerous, an acquired taste a lot of people will never acquire. Nevertheless, he is woefully miscast both as Tom Brand and as Mr. Fuzzypants. Spacey’s specialty is icy, Machiavellian calculation. Tom Brand is not supposed to be likable at the beginning. The emotional arc of the bad-dad metaphysical redemption comedy calls for him to start off aloof and distracted, obsessed with his career and money to the detriment of his family and friends, before learning, through a series of humbling trials, to be there for his family. The problem is that Tom seems like the same asshole at the end of the film that he was at the beginning.
It’s hard to overact with just your voice, but Spacey manages. He’s aided in that curious pursuit by a CGI cat that is forever mugging and bugging its eyes out and generally playing to the cheap seats. It’s as if Spacey desperately believes that if he just invests enough volume and energy into his line readings, he can transform brutal sequences where his confused kitty tries to use a fountain pen (silly kitty! You don’t have opposable thumbs!) or drink expensive liquor from a crystal decanter into sublime physical comedy, a (just barely) live-action version of an old Looney Tunes cartoon.
An astonishing amount of the film’s slim yet insanely padded 90 minutes or so running time is devoted to a subplot involving Tom’s crusade to build the world’s tallest skyscraper and a sinister underling’s attempts to use the boss’ coma to push his son out of the company. Why would a family-friendly movie about a pompous dude who learns life lessons during his time as a cat devote so much time to corporate intrigue? I suspect it’s less a choice than a matter of necessity. Cut out all the stuff involving David Brand struggling to prove himself to his gruff, demanding father and Nine Lives would clock in at about an hour. And we’d be deprived scenes where a cat desperately searches through a file cabinet for relevant paperwork fretting, “Articles of confederation. Where are they?”
We’d also be spared the moment late in the film where David Brand robotically intones of his asshole, hyper-competitive, macho dad, “I don’t know how he did it, building this company from scratch.” Yes, Nine Lives asks us to feel this erstwhile Eric Trump’s pain, as well as his triumph when he leaps off his dad’s building at the end and Mr. Fuzzypants/his father says to his son who has finally impressed him by doing comically macho, masculine bullshit, “My son! You were a man all along!”
A more self-aware movie might take its protagonist to task for seeing masculinity through such a narrow focus. Nine Lives does not. It doesn’t ask its protagonist to stop pursuing an idiotic goal like slapping his name on the world’s biggest building. It doesn’t even require that he be less of an ego-driven money monster. No, it just suggests that maybe he should spend more time with his family, and get a damn cat, and then he’ll be worthy of his family’s, and society’s worship.
House Of Cards brought Spacey back in a big way after a series of bizarrely misconceived flops like Pay It Forward, The Life Of David Gale, and K-Pax effectively killed his career as a leading man. Spacey’s willingness to star as Mr. Fuzzypants, as well as the arrogant billionaire who unwittingly comes to inhabit his furry, adorable body, suggests that his career as a leading man should have stayed dead.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco