Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, in advance of the release of the talking cat movie Nine Lives, we take a look at the definitive talking cat movie, appropriately titled A Talking Cat!?!
When ads and announcements began popping up for this Friday’s Nine Lives, many of us who cover the film industry wondered how one of the fake movies from Judd Apatow’s Funny People managed to make its way into the real movie world. It’s not just that a high-concept comedy about an overworked, inattentive dad trapped inside the body of the family cat seemed such an affront to the (admittedly diminished) dignity of Nine Lives cast Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Walken, and Barry Sonnenfeld; it’s that it could, at best, merely be a pale shadow of the immortal 2013 classic entitled, appropriately, A Talking Cat!?! And since they’re not screening Nine Lives for critics (can’t imagine why), let’s spotlight the earlier film instead.
The first thing you need to know is that that title character of A Talking Cat!?! is voiced by Eric Roberts – and maybe that’s the last thing you need to know, because it gets down to the project’s elemental strangeness. Why, oh why, would you want your family comedy cat to sound like a third-day detox patient? Eric Roberts can do a lot of things – be oily, be strange, be Julia’s brother, be Emma’s dad, appear in enough movies to prompt legitimate concerns about underground cloning rings – but A Talking Cat!?! makes it abundantly clear that providing mirthful feline commentary is not one of them. His line readings sound legitimately medicated (“Who told you to stop rubbing my ears?” comes out “Who tolllle youuu to stop rubbin’ myyyyears”), when they’re not downright disturbing; Roberts’ “mmm”s of pleasure as the cat drinks milk are the stuff of nightmares, and when a teenage girl declares that she likes cats, he punctuates his “Mmmm, cats like you too” with a little moan that a year of showers can’t scrub away.
His readings also sound oddly hurried, and no wonder – legend has it they were recorded in exactly fifteen minutes in Robert’s living room, though the startlingly hazy audio quality makes it sound as though he did the session in his bathroom, onto an answering machine tape. Not that the film surrounding him was constructed with any more care; it was reportedly shot in all of three days, which explains a lot. Everything feels like a first take – no need to reshoot for blown lines or clumsy blocking – and the itchiness of the camerawork makes Multiple Maniacs look comparatively patient and sophisticated. And the amount of padding required to get the thing up to feature length is the only legitimately funny thing about it; aside from lengthy opening and closing credits (I counted three full runs of one-at-a-time actor cards), every single scene begins with multiple establishing shots (according to IMDb trivia, there are 59 such shots for a movie set in two locations, though I’ll admit to not revisiting the movie and counting to confirm this stat).
Yet even at 85 minutes, A Talking Cat!?! is a mercilessly tough sit. Characters exchange peculiar dialogue, filled with buzzwords they clearly don’t understand. Family members seem to be meeting for the first time. Edits are inscrutable, and the film is scored with public domain library music that sounds like a Casio keyboard demo; the single mom and single dad at the story’s center first chat to the hilariously incongruent accompaniment of “La Cucaracha” (it gets a reprise in the end credits, along with “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”). And when protagonist “Duffy the cat” goes from sharing his thoughts with the audience to actually talking to the human characters – he can speak to each person once, we’re told, thanks to a magic collar that “lets me help people” or some such nonsense– we’re treated to a moving-mouth special effect that would’ve barely passed muster on Clutch Cargo. Finally, after we’re meant to think the cat has been killed (in a car accident stunning in its unconvincingness), the fake-out is revealed by a shot of little Duffy lounging on a bed with a single piece of gauze haphazardly draped around his neck. If a discrete image captures the “F it, good enough, move on” spirit of this movie, that’s the one.
It’s not just that A Talking Cat!?! is cheap; it’s that it’s a very specific kind of cheap, and one that makes more sense the more you know about director Mary Crawford. You see, “Mary Crawford” isn’t a real person; she’s the pseudonym of prolific director David DeCoteau, the one he uses when he’s directing similarly family-targeted straight-to-DVD/VOD releases like An Easter Bunny Puppy, A Halloween Puppy, and the de facto sequel to A Talking Cat!?! called, wait for it… A Talking Pony!?! Many of these films in his oeuvre use the same cast members and are shot in the same sterile McMansion. But that house is a bit of a skeleton key, because (per Flavorwire correspondent Will Sloan) DeCocteu has also used it in numerous films he’s directed under his own name, specifically the gay softcore 1313 series.
And once you’ve got that biographical sketch in mind, the peculiarity of A Talking Cat!?! makes a lot more sense – there’s an unsettlingly porno-y quality to the whole thing, which is (to put it mildly) at odds in a film ostensibly pitched towards kids. When the school hottie comes over so our young male lead can “tutor” her, lines like “So I need help from you” and “Maybe we could make it fun” make an odd landing. And awareness of the, ahem, aesthetic of the 1313 movies explains a lot about the casting of that young man, and the teen son of the story’s parallel family – never more so than in a shared pool scene between these two cut young men that has the dialogue, rhythm, and timing of a bit you fast-forward past for the “good part.”
Yet that sense of whiplash could be what’s made A Talking Cat!?! into a flashpoint for lovers of odious cinema. With truly great bad movies, there’s some quality (often inexplicable, occasionally not) that pushes them over a tipping point, from incompetent to absurd. You look at the screen in slack-jawed shock, wondering (marveling, really) if they actually just did that. And frankly, that might as well be the subtitle of this one – that, or the accidentally meta-textual dialogue, “A talking cat? That’s the best you could come up with?”
A Talking Cat!?! is streaming on Amazon Prime.