Murder of a Cat is one of the most tonally confused movies I’ve seen in quite some time. I’m pretty convinced there’s nothing wrong with it that couldn’t be fixed by some script tightening and a complete change in every aspect of its direction. There are moments where potential can be seen, but they’re still just kernels of ideas. They’re the kinds of ideas that die a slow death in a movie as bad as this, but maybe if placed into a different context they could have worked. It’s painful, unfunny, leaden, and incompetent, but it never had to be this bad.
Layabout manchild Clinton (Cabin in the Woods’ Fran Kranz) lives in his mother’s basement and tries to make ends meet selling crappy action figures from their front lawn. One day he awakens to find his beloved 17 year old cat Mouser has been murdered in a crossbow attack. Determined to bring the feline’s killer to justice, the imaginative Clinton gets involved in a convoluted series of clues that involve a hair dresser-slash-pot dealer femme fatale (Nikki Reed), the owner of a deep discount retailer (Greg Kinnear), stolen crossbows and electronic goods, and one of the retailer’s more eccentric and possibly dangerous employees (Leonardo Nam) who has a penchant for magic tricks involving cigarettes.
Immediately red flags go up when it becomes apparent that first time director Gillian Greene and writers Robert Snow and Christian Magalhes (both of whom are staff writers on TV’s New Girl) have no interest in developing Clinton as anything more than an abrasive, unlikable list of quirks and foibles. It’s a shame that his cat died, but he’s just as petulant about the death of the cat as one thinks he might be about his mother (a deeply slumming Blythe Danner) asking him to take out the garbage. He isn’t gutted. He’s just the same indignant person who berated a kid earlier for saying he was shitty at his non-existent job. He’s a character with one setting: deeply annoying. He’s not even unlikable in interesting ways. He’s just a shit. It’s never certain via the direction or Kranz’s performance (which no one could make work and he’s really bad in the role) if these eccentricities are supposed to be funny, sad, or frightening and the rest of the film can’t make any distinction between any of those three tones.
Everything about the character and the situation comes across as arbitrary and obvious. There’s little conviction to what’s going on outside of the performances, which is a shame because the supporting cast includes people like Kinnear, Reed, and J.K. Simmons (as the lovable local sheriff who’s sweet on Clinton’s mother) who try to inject life into the material despite clearly not being given any useful direction whatsoever.
If Kranz is in over his head with the role, Greene is out of her element entirely. Mystery and comedy are hard genres to tackle for the most skilled of directors, but she can’t get a handle on either aspect of her story. Every twist to the mystery can be seen from a great distance and none of it makes any logical sense. There’s also only three people who could be behind whatever criminal wrongdoing has happened, so there’s no shock to anything despite the film’s insistence that it’s convoluted.
At the same time, that lack of a unifying internal logic isn’t used to forward a single funny, or even grin inducing, punchline. These scenes aren’t directed as if they were meant to be comedic. The actors and the script are trying to do something comedic, but Greene seems to think that directing every sequence with an increasing degree of seriousness will somehow make it even funnier. To make matters worse, the film bares unnecessary clichés (faux lightning during the climax), entire scenes that go nowhere and add nothing (a professorial type buying weed, almost everything involving Nam’s character), and one of the worst, most excruciatingly obtrusive musical scores I’ve ever heard.
There’s a scene just beyond the midway point where Clinton gets a makeover of sorts where it becomes apparent that the material has been written to be a lot more over the top than Greene is directing it. In the right comedic hands (perhaps a David Wain/Michael Showalter film or a Lonely Island production) this same material could sing. It would be ridiculous and obvious, but it wouldn’t be boring and there would be an energy to everything that’s happening rather than being spoon fed a bullet-pointed plot delivered by thin characters. There’s not much about this effort that can’t be improved by a full on personality transplant.