Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever is a hard film to write about.
Without wishing to exaggerate its effect, it almost makes you feel like you need to unlearn everything you thought you knew about cinema in order to give it a reasonable assessment. I suppose I should start by saying it’s not a “good film,” but then value judgements feel futile in the (adorable and super-smooshy) face of Grumpy Cat. Besides, whatever insult you could level at this film’s content is redundant. Odds are it’s already been covered by the mega-meta self-loathing that oozes from every scene.
What makes it so compelling, though, is the simple fact that it exists. That you can buy it on DVD. That you didn’t just pass out in front of Reddit after too much Christmas camembert and suffer sanity-shaking hallucinations. It’s available in pound shops all over the UK and is probably the weirdest time you can buy for a quid.
The crux of the film’s problem is that it’s a Lifetime TV movie – something generally associated with the outdated, uncool, traditional, sincere or sentimental – and yet it’s based on an internet meme – which, by its nature, is something very modern, “cool” and (often) drenched in irony. Somehow it attempts to combine these disparate origins in a way that’s so jarring, so misguided and so utterly wrong that it’s hard to turn away from.
The plot is loose and frequently vanishes down bizarre avenues but takes its main cue from traditional Christmas animal stories. Grumpy Cat lives in a pet store at a mall somewhere in smalltown America and, because of her weird face and melancholic demeanor, is not very popular. She’s been returned twice and has built up a hardened attitude to the world, which she shares with the audience through internal monologues voiced by Aubrey Plaza. When a misfit 12-year-old girl called Chrystal (Megan Charpentier) wishes on a magic coin given to her by Santa Claus (stick with it), she won’t believe what happens next! Having wished for just one true friend, she finds that Grumpy Cat can suddenly communicate with her via telepathy and, it turns out, they have a lot in common. Mostly loneliness, alienation, despair… but still… a lot of stuff.
Meanwhile – on the other side of the mall – two goobers plot to steal a million-dollar pedigree dog from the pet store so they can fund their ailing glam-rock band, Dragontail. It’s up to Chrystal and Grumpy to save the dog and save the day, while at the same time discovering the true meaning of, uh, friendship? Christmas? Team spirit? I have no idea. The moral gets lost along with the story about an hour into the movie although I did wonder if there was a darker reading of the whole thing; that it’s actually a story about a depressed tween who develops multiple personalities after a nervous breakdown, and that the scattershot nature of the script reflects her fractured mind. But that’s probably a whole other article…
Co-writer/director Tim Hill has something of a pedigree when it comes to anthropomorphic animal movies – having directed Alvin & The Chipmunks and Garfield: Tale Of Two Kitties – but here, he seems to be way off-leash. The humor is not so much irreverent as plain tasteless (a one-line gag about child sex abuse slips in near the end almost unnoticed, but is sure to elicit an out-loud wince from anyone still alert by then). Grumpy Cat’s monologues (some of which were adlibbed by Plaza) are sometimes pithy but mostly just brutal lashings of the viewer’s self-esteem. Every few minutes she breaks the fourth wall to ask why we’re still watching, or to complain about the lack of budget, or to question the quality of the writing, or try to cynically sell us merchandise, or to make us re-evaluate the point of our very existence, only to then lapse back into schmaltz and Lifetime-friendly voiceover about lonely pets and festive spirit. This makes for an ouroboric effect; a self-awareness forever taking bites out of itself until there’s nothing left to even be aware of.
It’s brain-breaking stuff and yet, even with the objective knowledge that this film is the very definition of a hot mess, it has some good things going for it. First and foremost, it’s never boring. While very few of the narrative interruptions work in the way in which they’re intended, they do keep things lively and unpredictable. I mean, it has no place in any coherent script but seeing Grumpy Cat at the helm of a paintball-firing Gatling gun, while a second manifestation of Grumpy Cat – floating in some kind of phantom bauble, wearing a bowler hat and a bow tie – offers postmodern commentary questioning the realism of the scene, is an entertainingly bizarre sight.
Worst Christmas Ever also has the benefit of a charismatic cast. Everybody loves Aubrey Plaza, obviously, but the lesser known supporting players all give their best under the circumstances and help redeem matters too. Megan Charpentier plays the “straight” lead role gamely, while Evan Todd and Isaac Haig as the bumbling baddies are surprisingly – genuinely – funny and endearing.
That said, the star of the show is Grumpy Cat herself. In the classic Exploitation tradition of giving the public what they want, the film delivers irresistible cat face by the megaton. If you’ve gone into the film as a fan wanting to see the cat, you can’t possibly feel short-changed, no matter how crappy the rest of it may be. She appears in almost every scene, sports a wide array of costumes, does some stunts (with the aid of amusingly naff puppetry) and even drives a car at one point. Even when delivering the worst of her one-liners, Grumpy Cat’s face never fails to delight.
So it’s messy as it gets, tonally all over the place, astonishingly bad at times and a frustratingly missed opportunity (just think how good a savvy digital age satire of Lifetime movies could’ve been in the hands of someone witty). Yet still, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever probably sits near the top of the Pound Shop Christmas Pile for me. It shouldn’t. But I dunno. There are a lot of cookie-cutter Christmas movies out there. Maybe I’m just jaded and craving the buzz of something I’ve not seen before but this – while terrible – is, at least, uniquely terrible. As Whitney Houston might say, it’s not right… but it’s okay.