Given all the talented people involved, Nine Lives has the pedigree for something truly great. Instead of marveling at the likes of Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Garner, you can’t help but feel a bit of pity towards them. Under no circumstances should great actors like these have to slum it for bottom of the barrel entertainment. Bottom of the barrel is being too kind towards this film. A more apt way to describe Nine Lives would be to call it the litter box of cinema. The plot is an amalgam of family film clichés meshed with low brow toilet humor. Even though it’s only about 80-85 minutes long, it was an excruciating experience to sit through.
At the center of Nine Lives is the most basic of family film tropes; the workaholic dad who has no time for his family. In this case, that dad is Kevin Spacey as Tom Brand, a business mogul with an acumen for arrogance. His daughter and wife are reduced to spending time with him through watching his press conferences. On the night of his daughter’s birthday, Tom visits a shady cat shop owned by Christopher Walken. His character has a name but his performance practically screams parody of the man’s image. At any rate and in a rather convoluted way, Brand winds up stuck in the body of the cat he purchases. From there, he has to regain his family’s love and attention while foiling the aspirations of his cartoonishly sinister business partners.
Not since Superman Returns has Kevin Spacey phoned in a performance like this. When he’s not looking completely disinterested as a human, his voiceover work evokes the apathy of a domesticated house cat. He shouldn’t bear the brunt of the blame though. Given his improvisational skill, it’s frustrating that he’s hamstrung by a script devoid of intuition and wit. The script, when it’s not focusing on unnecessary business discussion, is reduced to a series of cat gags you could find on YouTube. What’s fascinating is how they bounce back and forth between being inappropriate and overly juvenile. Within the span of five minutes, Brand goes from attempting to write a note to downing a fifth of scotch….as a cat. We also get no fewer than four scenes of a cat urinating somewhere outside of a litter box. None of these sketches are humorous. Heck, you could find more humor out of a gif collection on your favorite website.
The shifts in the “humor” are indicative of one of the film’s biggest issues. Despite the PG rating and kid friendly premise, there’s story elements that no child could understand. While Tom’s human body lies in a coma, the boardroom of his company attempts to scheme power away from Tom and his son. Unless your child is fond of the politics of company ownership percentages, this entire subplot is superfluous. All of the characters are completely unlikable save for the daughter. Sometimes, their actions go too far even for a film unbound by rules and logic. As an example, two security guards would find it funny to tase a cat instead of simply picking it up and moving it. Between that and the fact that every adult is completely unsympathetic, the film often mistakes being mean-spirited as humor.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld does very little to make the film warrant a viewing on the big screen. Too much of the film feels like it was shot with the sensibilities of a low-budget television series. When there are moments that utilize green screen or special effects, they’re laughably distracting. The opening scene alone, in which Brand skydives to a conference, has the believability of James Bond windsurfing in Die Another Day. On the whole, almost every green screen moment falls completely flat. Sonnenfeld, who has experience with big budget films (Men in Black), either didn’t have any involvement here or directed these scenes while asleep at the wheel.
The one character who had moments of brevity and believability was Christopher Walken. In many respects, he plays the exact same role as he did in Adam Sandler’s Click. As per usual with Walken, he delivers his lines with his infamous annunciations and eccentricities. Because his character is a “cat whisperer”, he spends the majority of his appearances speaking directly to the cat. His screen time is minimal but his scenes act as eye drops to provide brief remedial pleasure. For a film that’s 85 minutes long and only produces a few chuckles, it’s nowhere near enough. Nine Lives was the cinematic equivalent of a hernia. No matter how little you move or how much you try to block it out, it still manages to be an unpleasant experience.