Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
For me, the defining moment in Eric Roberts’ late-period career (the period that might charitably be deemed “the loser years”) was when Mickey Rourke, in a glorious display of Mickey Rourke-itude, inexplicably but wonderfully used his acceptance speech for winning Best Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards for The Wrestler to issue a gonzo appeal to independent filmmakers everywhere to stop shunning Eric Roberts for past misdeeds and give him the comeback role he so richly deserved.
Apropos of seemingly nothing, Rourke ranted to a hypnotized, confused, and likely inebriated crowd. (This was the Independent Spirit Awards, after all, an institution locked in a decades-long drinking game with the similarly booze-sodden Golden Globes.) “Eric Roberts! I just want to say one thing about Eric Roberts. Eric Roberts is probably the best actor I’ve ever worked with. I don’t know why, in the last 15 years, ain’t nobody given him a chance to show his shit again because whatever he did 15 years ago, 20 years ago, it should be forgiven. I’m goddamned serious about that. Eric Roberts is the fucking man, and he deserves, like I have, like I got, he deserves a second chance. And I wish there was one goddamned filmmaker in this room who would let him fly because the man, he is something else. Thank you, Eric. Eric will probably be arrested by the end of the day but, anyway…”
Rourke was implicitly telling the crowd—and by extension, show business, and by extension, the universe—that he knows irredeemable scumbags. Hell, to much of the world, Rourke personifies the concept of an irredeemable scumbag. Yet as a good friend and admirer of Roberts (and quite possibly his new agent), he could vouch for the fact that deep down, under all the sleaze, shame, desperation, drug addictions, public estrangement from his family, domestic-abuse charges, and self-destruction, Roberts was just like him: a humbled and wiser scumbag who has learned from his experiences and will triumph, The Wrestler-style, if given the opportunity.
Like Mickey Rourke, Roberts has a real gift for terrifying intensity, but terrifying intensity only works in a limited variety of contexts. When casting a romantic leading man, for example, you don’t necessarily want a guy who looks like he might beat someone to death with his fists in a drunken bar fight or stab someone with a shiv in a prison shower, as Roberts clearly does. In retrospect, it’s strange that Julia Roberts, America’s sweetheart, emerged from the same swampy genetic stew as her sinister older brother, or that adorable Emma Roberts began her journey to existence inside Eric’s grimy testicles.
For Roberts, his terrifying 1983 performance in Bob Fosse’s underrated Star 80 as Paul Snider—the tortured real-life hustler who brutally murdered his estranged wife, Dorothy Stratten—was a career-defining turn in both a good and a bad way. Roberts was a victim of his own success and talent. He was so scarily convincing and believable as a bitter, rage-choked lunatic so overcome with hatred that he would torture and murder a woman rather than see her succeed with someone else, it became hard to buy him as anything but the kind of violent lunatic who might torture and kill a woman.
The life Roberts led off-screen seemed to mirror and echo the intense, often violent, sometimes obsessed, dangerous characters he played onscreen. He was arrested in the ’80s for resisting arrest after getting busted with coke and weed; he was arrested in the ’90s for assaulting his wife (presumably the offense Rourke was begging the world to forgive), and in more recent years he appeared on Celebrity Rehab for an addiction to medical marijuana.
So casting directors and filmmakers can be forgiven for looking at Roberts and seeing a dark, tormented figure who is best cast in roles as heavies or psychopaths or men on the edge. The directors of the instant camp classic A Talking Cat!?!, however, looked at the one-time Academy Award nominee and saw something slightly different: the voice and personality of a sassy little pussycat who teaches life lessons to a pair of hopelessly bland families.
Rourke’s impassioned plea for some fearless iconoclast to give Roberts “a chance to show his shit again” and be afforded an opportunity to fly anew was answered not just by the geniuses behind A Talking Cat!?!—a film that seems incredulous about its own existence—but also by seemingly every other low-rent filmmaker in the universe.
According to his IMDB page, Roberts is scheduled to appear in no less than 41 films this year. Seriously. Obviously some of those films will not be released this year, or ever, but that’s still a staggering volume of work for an actor outside the world of pornography. That helps explain why Roberts seems to have recorded the entirety of his voiceover in a single take via a shitty cell phone—fuck-ups, mumbling, and incoherence be damned.
When you make 41 films in a year, with titles ranging from Six Gun Savior (which typecasts him as “The Devil”) to Taco Shop (where he plays “Old School Eddie”) you can’t afford to be a perfectionist, or even redo takes, apparently, since you’re scheduled to make three more films that afternoon.
A Talking Cat!?! opens with Roberts’ talking cat, Duffy, wandering through the woods while enthusing:
“I like the woods. I always have. Don’t get me wrong. I like to be indoors on a nice, fluffy bed as much as anyone, more than anyone, probably. I’ve heard them say, ‘It’s the simple things you should appreciate most.’ Mmmm hmm. And right now it’s the wind in the trees and the smells in the air. This place has magic! And people nowadays are way more concerned with their tiny, shiny, beeping machines than they are with the simple joys of living. Sometimes I’m propelled to come out to this place and do a little meditation, they call it, or communing with nature, or just letting the magic guide me. Because I help people. Even if they don’t know they need help, because as I’ve discovered, people need all the help they can get!”
Roberts is aiming for a level of whimsy that would strain Wes Anderson, let alone a guy who could go toe-to-toe with Gary Busey for sheer visceral creepiness. It’s as if the director was instructing Roberts, “Now Eric, I want you to slur ‘nice fluffy bed’ like you’re at the tail end of a 10-day whiskey-and-cocaine jag and you’re fantasizing about a place to sleep, because you have not slept, or sat down, or even stopped talking, in over a week.” That, I suspect, is direction that would resonate with Roberts more than something like, “You’re an adorable kitty cat, and you just love to curl up in your favorite snuggly little resting place!”
From the moment Roberts’ narration kicks in, A Talking Cat!?! engenders the intense cognitive dissonance suggested by its title. The brain rebels and adamantly refuses to fire the synapses necessary to create the illusion that the voice on the soundtrack somehow comes out of a cat and not a grizzled, angry old character actor. Suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. The cat and Roberts’ voice don’t seem to inhabit the same universe, let alone the same space.
A Talking Cat?!? is really an exercise in pushing the boundaries of constructive editing far beyond their breaking point. The filmmakers seem to think that with the right editing and context, audiences will gaze at a static shot of a spectacularly uncharismatic cat staring blankly at nothing in particular and imagine a rich inner life for said cat, or at least the capacity for thought.
When Roberts’ voice accompanies shots of the cat, there’s at least the suggestion, however unconvincing, that the voice is coming out of the cat, or perhaps represents the cat’s inner monologue, but that dissipates entirely whenever the cat leaves the shot and Roberts’ disconnected voice serves as a surreal backdrop to random shots of nature.
This brings us to the first of the film’s many fatal flaws. I love cats on an almost unhealthy level. At one point I had five cats living in my apartment. When I had to give away my cats because my wife is violently allergic, I got a cat tattoo so that I could always be around at least a symbolic representation of a cat, if not the real thing. As someone who loves cats deeply and unconditionally, I can tell you that the main cat in A Talking Cat!?! is fucking dreadful. The worst. It would need to improve dramatically in every facet just to rise to the level of mediocrity. Watching the film, I was reminded of this great article from our sister publication The Onion. How awful is the title cat? It’s so non-photogenic and dull that the DVD box features a different, much cuter, and much younger cat.
A Talking Cat!?! casts Roberts as a magical talking cat who enters the lives of a pair of families led by single parents with a divine sense of purpose. Johnny Whitaker, who many years ago played an adorable sprite on Family Affair, stars as the head of one family, a wealthy computer magnate who stomps home one day and announces to son Justin Cone, “It’s over. The company. We sold the websites, the interfaces, the code that I worked half of my life on. Sold myself out of a job! Now they say I have enough money to retire.”
The model-pretty son barely pays attention to the news that his dad has sold his entire business and is now free to spend all his time bonding with him. Clad in tight jean shorts and splayed suggestively on a couch, Cone barely looks from his book to sneer, “Didn’t you already have enough money?”
Children stars tend to oscillate between extremes: They either grow up to be either the most gorgeous people in the universe (Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth Taylor) or they grow up to look like weird, sagging, depressing caricatures of their former selves. Whitaker falls into this second category. Compounding the awkwardness, the vibe between him and Cone has a weirdly homoerotic quality, as if the actual relationship at play was one between moody rent boy and love-struck sugar daddy, not loving father and son.
Kristine DeBell heads the other, poorer family as a perpetually stressed, irritable caterer with an obnoxiously ambitious, business-minded teenaged daughter (Janis Peebles) and a hunky son (Daniel Dannas) who desperately lacks faith in himself. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so Cat makes the most of DeBell’s entrance by introducing her looking for her shoes and braying about wanting to impress a client, quipping to her children, “I’ve got to start setting up at the Simmons’ cocktail party and they’re not going to want to see my toes. They are our best customers! They deserve toe-free appetizers!”
Roberts functions in the film as something of a Manic Pixie Dream Cat. He swoops unexpectedly into the lives of troubled souls and fixes all their problems with a combination of sage advice and joie de vivre. By this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “A talking cat!?! What the fuck?!? How on earth can a fucking cat talk? What manner of motherfuckery or black magic is involved?” Thankfully, Roberts has a monologue where he helpfully explains to a disbelieving teenaged boy, “I’m a talking cat, but I can only talk to a person once. There’s a collar my original owner gave me buried under a grove of magical trees due north of here. Look for a big fallen tree just through a thick hedge. It looks like a fuzzy green wall. That collar also lets me help people.” I’m pretty sure dialogue like that is exactly what Rourke was talking about when he implored a cold and uncaring movie business an opportunity to let Roberts really spread his wings and soar.
Why can Duffy only talk to a person once? Duffy never explains, merely huffing that those are the rules and he can’t change them. For most films, limiting a defining characteristic—in the case of A Talking Cat?!?, that would be a cat that talks—to a handful of instances would feel like the worst kind of cop-out. Here it feels almost noble: The filmmakers are sparing themselves and us some embarrassment, since Duffy “talks” using the most hilariously flimsy, home-computer-level special effects known to man.
A Talking Cat!?! is filled with dead space—not in the 1970s, Robert Altman-tragicomedy-of-everyday-life kind of way, but rather in the sense that there are countless shots of people walking or sighing or wandering around that serve no conceivable purpose but to fill out the film’s insanely padded 85-minute running time.
Take, for example, the scene where Cone humors his rich, connection-hungry father by suggesting that maybe they’ll order pizza or something later, then walks upstairs to his room: It doesn’t just cut from Cone’s words to the next scene, as a filmmaker with even a basic grasp on the language and rules of professional filmmaking would. No, we follow Cone all the way up the stairs and to the second floor just to let the audience know that, I dunno, he didn’t have a fatal seizure halfway up the stairs.
It’s not enough for a character to say he’s driving somewhere. No, we need to follow a single boring car on an unexceptional road all the way from its start to its destination, with nothing remotely non-tedious occurring along the way. I suppose that I should just be happy this isn’t occurring in real time and that there isn’t a half hour of Whitaker driving cautiously on an empty road to his destination.
Then again, Cat has about 12 minutes’ worth of plot, so it has to dole it out sparingly. Duffy acts as something of a feline Amelie who uses his magical powers of speech and his gifts as a “human whisperer” to set up the pouty teenaged boy with the obnoxious girl he’s tutoring in English. A Talking Cat?!? inspires so little sympathy for its characters, human or otherwise, that when Duffy gets hit by a car in the third act, I was actually rooting for his death, and I say that as an inveterate cat lover. But astonishingly, the worst and craziest is yet to come.
After Duffy is hit by a car, he hovers close to death, Dannas conveniently remembers what Duffy told him about the magical collar under the magical tree in the magical forest. They slap the magical collar on Duffy and through the magic of terrible, terrible special effects, Duffy roars back to life in time for a film-wide happy ending. Reportedly, A Talking Cat?!? cost $1 million, which makes me wonder where the other $990,000 went. It sure as shit isn’t on the screen.
Watching A Talking Cat?!? with equal parts disbelief, horror, and delirious guilty enjoyment, I found myself guessing that the filmmaker had never even seen a film before, let alone written one. Oh dear Lord. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Director David DeCoteau hadn’t just directed a film before. According to his IMDB credentials, he has directed more than a hundred films under various aliases.
Why would he need various aliases? Well, it appears the director’s interests are eclectic and far-flung. He began with Roger Corman, segued to directing gay porn films, then moved on to Charles Band productions and children’s films. Cat’s abysmal animal acting is even more egregious and outrageous when you consider that the film comes from the director of A Halloween Puppy as well as the other two entries in the holiday-themed baby-dog trilogy, An Easter Bunny Puppy and A Christmas Puppy.
A Talking Cat!?! is characterized by a bizarre dearth of extras: There is literally no one in the movie except for the members of the two families and the cat, and the only settings are the two family homes and the roads and wilderness between them. If the film feels like it was shot on a softcore porn film set by a softcore gay porn director, that’s for a very good reason: It was. Renaissance man DeCoteau alternates between kids’ films like the holiday puppy trilogy and this and the softcore gay porn films he makes under the 1313 name, sometimes using the same sets.
This film just boggles the imagination. It disgraces and shames a sketchy subgenre (low-budget talking-animal movies) seemingly beneath shame and disgrace. Since its hyperventilating title contains a question mark, I’m going to answer it. A Talking Cat!?! Oh, fuck no. I barely believe that waste of fur is a cat, let alone a talking one stuck playing a half-assed Garfield reconceived as a smug life coach.
A Talking Cat!?! has ruined me for all other films. No wait. I got that wrong. I meant to write that it ruined films for me, and cats in the process. For better or worse, it’s a kiddie version of The Room or Birdemic that delivers bizarre, unselfconscious, unintentional laughter from start to finish.
Just how bad is it? It is unbelievably awful in an incredibly fun way. For lovers of utter, unredeemable trash, it is highly recommended.