Kevin Spacey & Kafka With Cats: A Closer Look at Nine Lives

Kevin Spacey turns into a cat. Christopher Walken. We take a closer look at the Kafka-esque comedy, Nine Lives..

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.”

So goes the first line in Franz Kafka’s classic short story, Metamorphosis – a tiny, existential drama subject to all kinds of interpretations since its publication in 1915. Even that famous opening line is open to interpretation, as this Guardian piece points out: did Kafka really mean that poor, unfortunate Gregor woke up as a cockroach, another kind of insect, or something else entirely? The German phrase he uses, “Ungeheuren Ungeziefer” loosely translates to “enormous vermin.” 

Whatever Gregor becomes, it’s something pitiful and helpless; he can no longer work, and gradually, he’s shunned by his own family. From one angle, Metamorphosis could be read as the guilt of being ill and troublesome to the loved ones who care for you; Kafka himself was sick with tuberculosis for the last few years of his life, and was cared for by his sister. Among many other things, Metamorphosis appears to be about the horror of waking up as something loathsome – something that cannot be loved.

Which brings us to Nine Lives, a movie about a loathsome business man who wakes up one day to find himself changed into something he loathes: in this instance, a domestic cat. On one level, Nine Lives is one of those high-concept comedies about a character learning to be a better person: similar examples include Groundhog Day (starring Bill Murray) and Scrooged (also starring Bill Murray), or maybe Jack Frost, in which Michael Keaton wakes up from a car accident and finds himself inhabiting the body of a sentient snowman.

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Somehow, Nine Lives manages to be much, much more strange than Jack Frost; believe it or not, it’s more strange than Quigley, the 2003 straight-to-video movie in which Gary Busey stars as a businessman reincarnated as a dog. (It’s possibly more strange than this year’s A Dog’s Purpose, though we haven’t had a chance to see it yet.) 

There are several key things that make Nine Lives so strange. Number one, there’s its provenance; behind the camera, you’ll find director Barry Sonnenfeld, who was responsible for such hits as The Addams Family, Enchanted, and Men In Black. Nine Lives stars Kevin Spacey – an actor who you wouldn’t expect to suffer crappy scripts gladly, backed up by Jennifer Garner and Christopher Walken in key supporting roles. Then there’s the plot – crafted by as many as five screenwriters, if you believe the credits – which is a mash-up of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the aforementioned Metamorphosis, A Christmas Carol, and viral internet cat videos.

Spacey stars as Tom Brand, a wealthy industrialist who’s in the process of building the tallest skyscraper in Manhattan. This irks the other board members at Brand’s company, Firebrand, since they care more about pesky things like profits than constructing gigantic monuments to the boss’s ego; for some reason, Brand’s obsessed with erecting a taller skyscraper than a rival company over in Chicago. What Brand doesn’t realize is that one of his executives, Ian (Mark Consuelos) is secretly planning to unseat him and sell Firebrand off for a tidy profit; when a freak accident leaves Brand in a coma, Ian finds his moment to pounce. 

It’s after the freak accident that things take a supernatural turn. While Brand’s body lies in a hospital bed on life support, the businessman’s consciousness somehow winds up in a cat named Mr. Fuzzypants – a pet moggy Brand had only just purchased for his youngest daughter’s birthday minutes before his accident. Brand, now covered in fur and walking on all fours, therefore has to find a way of convincing his second wife, Lara (Jennifer Garner) that he’s not just an ordinary cat – and, at the same time, figure out whether he can get his consciousness back in his old human body before it’s too late.

The key to the whole mystery appears to be Felix Perkins, a pet store owner played by Christopher Walken. Now, Walken’s an odd piece of casting whichever way you look at it; the role seems better suited to someone twinkle-eyed and harmless-looking like Dustin Hoffman, essentially pulling off the same eccentric schtick he pulled in I Heart Huckabees or Mr. Margorium’s Wonder Emporium. Here, Walken puts in a typically charismatic, lizard-like performance which is entirely at odds with the kind of guy who’d run a store called Purrkins; we love Walken, but let’s face it, he’d get kicked out of an Aleister Crowley appreciation society for being too sinister. How curious, then, to see Walken playing the role of a ‘cat whisperer’ who appears to have the power to inject human souls into feline bodies – all the better, we guess, to teach them some important life lessons.

The only thing is, Tom Brand doesn’t really learn any life lessons at all. He’s a workaholic who doesn’t spend enough time with his family, but the movie’s at pains to explain that he’s really just a nice guy who wants to provide for his kids’ future. The colossal building he’s obsessed with could have been portrayed as a symbol of his obsession with greatness, but instead, it becomes an emblem of how individual and decent he is. Sure, Brand spends a bit more time with his daughter and learns to appreciate how nice his second wife is, but late in the film, he says something to the effect of, “Honey, I haven’t learned a thing.” 

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Then again, Nine Lives doesn’t function as a comedy, either. For much of the film, the running gag is that we’re watching a stuffy, self-absorbed businessman being stripped of his dignity; now going by the humiliating name of Mr. Fuzzypants, he’s expected to defecate in a cat litter tray or sit around while his spoiled daughter puts awful ribbons in his hair. His attempts to talk to his wife and children merely result in haunting scenes of unintelligible shrieking and mewling, like Anastacia singing in Klingon.

When Mr. Fuzzypants starts clawing at the furniture, Christopher Walken (sorry, Mr. Perkins) comes around and threatens to have him neutered. Mr Fuzzypants’ only pleasures in life are: one, breaking into the liquor cabinet and drinking all the expensive booze; and two, relieving himself in his ex-wife’s handbag. Again, these scenes are seemingly played for laughs, but really what we’re seeing are the actions of a broken man in the grip of a Gregor Samsa-like existential panic. 

While watching Nine Lives, we began to work up a pet theory. Through much of the film, Kevin Spacey provides a voice-over for Mr. Fuzzypants’ inner thoughts. Remember that old film Look Who’s Talking, where Bruce Willis lent his voice to a creepy-looking baby? This is like that, except Spacey delivers his lines with all the conviction of Harrison Ford sulkily narrating his way through Blade Runners theatrical cut.

Our theory, then, was this: the voice-over was inserted late in Nine Lives production in a vain effort to brighten the movie up a bit. This would certainly explain why so many writers are credited, and might also explain why its release was pushed back from April to August 2016. It would certainly fit with Spacey’s bored-sounding drawl, or the way his inner dialogue basically tells us what we can already see on the screen, like Arnold Schwarzenegger doing a DVD commentary track. 

There are signs elsewhere that Nine Lives may have run into trouble during post-production. The CGI is largely appalling, from a stunningly unconvincing base-jumping sequence at the beginning to the blatantly obvious computer-generated cat sequences. While Mr. Fuzzypants is a real feline for the most part, the odd bits where he performs stunts (or, you know, gets drunk) require the use of visual effects, and they’re about as inconspicuous as Kevin Spacey’s oddly geometric wig.

Anyway, after we finished watching Nine Lives, made ourselves a strong cup of coffee and stared into the middle distance for a while, we did a bit of research to see if there was any basis for our theory. As it turns out, there is. We stumbled on a blog over at Save The Cat, where screenwriter Matt Allen talks about the film’s creative genesis. The original idea came from Christoph Lambert – the boss of EuropaCorp, the studio which produced the finished film.

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According to Allen, Lambert’s vision was emphatically “not a children’s movie.” Rather, it should, he said, be smart and thoughtful – like a Woody Allen comedy-drama, say. And Allen gives us this juicy morsel of information:

“Christophe wanted us think of it as a ‘Woody Allen’ film. We would not hear the cat’s thoughts. It was to be ‘introspective and sophisticated,’ but at the same time, it still had to be about a man who turns into a cat. I’m not kidding.” 

So it was that Allen and his writing partner Caleb Wilson set about writing a comedy-drama per Lambert’s brief: sophisticated, introspective, and where you absolutely, categorically did not hear Kevin Spacey lugubriously describing the cat’s inner monologue. As you’ve probably gathered, this version of the screenplay didn’t make it to the screen. According to Allen, a new executive came in, heard a precis of the script, and concluded that you couldn’t very well have a talking cat movie without a talking cat. Other writers were brought on board, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

In the final analysis, Nine Lives is a genuine oddity. It’s a comedy without any laughs. It’s a morality tale where, as AV Clubs Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out, it’s the kids who wind up having to learn how to love their megalomaniac father. It’s a film seemingly aimed at families that contains disquieting things like fathers in comas, sons jumping off buildings and unhappy women contemplating divorces.

Nine Lives is itself like the product of an existentialist short story: a movie that, thanks to the whacky way the film industry works, went to bed as one creature and woke up as something else entirely. Kafka would be proud.