Sunday, December 22, 2019

Kitty Litter: Cats

Dame Judi Dench in Cats.

For the last few days, my Facebook feed has been inundated with memes and tweets and hot takes and quips and hit pieces all commenting on the single biggest scandal ever to hit the English-speaking world: Cats, the movie. Director Tom Hooper’s hallucinogenic, CGI-fueled take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mammoth musical success is apparently an impeachable offense, and the country is united in proclaiming it so. There are so many cat puns floating around the Internet that I’m sure the one I’ve used for my title has already gone viral for someone else, but as I’ve done my best to ignore the raging interwebs, I use it here with pride.

When Cats the stage musical first came out about 5,000 years and 2.45 billion performances ago, there were apparently millions of folks who thought, People singing and dancing dressed up as cats!? Sign me up for a couple hundred tickets! I wasn’t one of them, as the thought of people dancing and singing dressed up as cats makes me wonder if life is worth living. Besides, I’ve seen Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, which is basically the same thing as Cats, but the people are singing and dancing dressed up as train cars, zooming around on roller skates. (Reader, I have suffered.)

Thus I came to the movie fresh. I spent the first 45 minutes with my jaw agape and the next hour bored as can be. (One of the other five patrons in the theater agreed, judging by the loud snoring emanating from his seat.) The film opens in a candy-colored alley with weird, furry aliens from another planet prowling around, when a car drives up and a (human) woman discards a bag containing something moving inside it. This turns out to be Victoria (Francesca Hayward), another one of the aliens. The alley residents look at her curiously and explain some things about cats. The lead alien, er, cat, looks suspiciously like, wait, no, it can’t be – holy crap, it’s Robbie Fairchild, the accomplished NY City Ballet dancer and star of Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of An American in Paris! Then all the cats start singing about how they’re Jellicle cats and Victoria is not, and then some other cats (Jason Derulo! Rebel Wilson spreading her legs obscenely, accompanied by mice and cockroaches! James Corden!) do some songs and dances, and the camera zooms from one set to another and we never know where the hell we are, and some woebegone mound of fur that turns out to be Jennifer Hudson (!) sings a few bars of “Memory” with snot coming out of her nose, and ladies and gentlemen, frickin’ Dame Judi Dench apparates from somewhere and explains a bit of cat philosophy so convoluted it’d be right at home in the second Matrix movie. And in what has to be the apex of his career, Sir Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat laps up water out of a dish, and whimpers and mumbles a song about theater. (“The theatre is not what it once was.” A-fuckin’-men, Sir Ian.) Meanwhile, the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba – what kind of dirt does Tom Hooper have on these people?) has been turning cats into dust like a less lethal version of Thanos in order to imprison them on a barge in the Thames where they are overseen by, no, make it stop, please, Ray Winstone! Taylor Swift dispenses catnip from a suspended crescent moon, and Dame Judi is also catnapped, but Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson, in a performance that actually has some occasional charm to it) magicians her back. Finally, finally, J-Hud sings all of “Memory” with so much sotto voce emotion (and more snot) that it ranks as the worst of the 423,345 extant versions of the song. This so impresses Dame Judi that she bestows the Jellicle Choice on J-Hud and she ascends to the Heaviside layer in a hot air balloon. (The Heaviside layer is an actual thing: “A layer of ionized gas [which could also describe Cats] occurring between roughly 56 and 93 miles above the ground.” The Jellicle Choice is not an actual thing. Neither appears in Eliot’s poems.) Then Dame Judi explains some more stuff about cats, and the film blessedly ends. Yes, I’ve just seen a film about a cult that practices ritual sacrifice. I personally would have chosen Gus the Theatre Cat to send to his death.

The show is based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of nonsense poems for children that certainly has its charms, despite the occasional flash of Eliot’s trademark racism. (He has nasty things to say about Persians and Siamese.) But it makes as much sense to make a musical out of this material as it would out of the rhymes of Mother Goose. (Goose-ical the Musical?) And what kind of sense does it make to make a movie out of people singing and dancing as cats?

When the first trailer for Cats “broke the internet,” one of the criticisms was that the cats, especially Hayward, looked naked. Hooper and his team reportedly took the note and bulked up the fur to lessen the nude effect. But it didn’t work for Idris Elba: when he takes off his jacket, it appears he’s slinking through the movie starkers.

Naoimh Morgan, Francesca Hayward, and Danny Collins in Cats.

The design of the cats defies reason. Many actors have stated that they have difficulty watching themselves in movies. (Adam Driver recently walked out of a Fresh Air interview because he couldn’t stand to hear himself act.) All the actors in this film must have looked at themselves in horror when they saw the final product. Jennifer Hudson gets the worst of it, although her face has improved slightly from the first trailer. She also has to make her first exit on her hands and knees, degrading her even further. (No one else is ever on their hands and knees, so why is Grizabella?) Even with that, she’s still miles above McKellen in the degradation department. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so great an actor so debased. And Hayword, a principal ballerina with the Royal English Ballet, is mixed race, born to a British father and a Kenyan mother, but she looks decidedly Anglo in the orange and white fur the computer programmers have given her.

People may have been originally attracted to Cats for the concept, but the show succeeded as a song and dance spectacle. The CGI skin that Hooper applies to the actors, especially the prehensile tails (the actors look more like lemurs than cats), obscures the human bodies, so that you often can’t tell what’s actual human movement and what’s computer-generated. Hayward and Fairchild execute some gorgeous ballet moves, but the hip-hop dancing sensations Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois) make no impression at all. All those bits and bytes conceal their subtle, twitchy rapidity. The choreography is by the brilliant Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, Bandstand), but what with the kitty pelts and Hooper’s complete inability to coherently shoot a dance number, I’m hard-pressed to tell you if his work here is any good. Stephen McRae does some impressive tap dancing, but Hooper’s shoddy direction and Melanie Oliver’s scattershot editing don’t allow the dance to build, to become something.

When they’re not dancing, Hooper has his actors attempt to move like cats, but because the actors aren’t cats, it comes across as unintentionally erotic and extremely unsettling. They all rub against each other and touch noses, and you start to think a big ole kitty orgy is about to break out.

And the singing? Hayward, her face frozen in wide-eyed wonder for the entire movie, can carry a tune, but she doesn’t know much about breath control or projection, so Hooper brings almost everyone else down to her level. All the songs are half-whispered, or talk-sung. There’s also dialog, courtesy of Hooper and his co-writer Lee Hall, which was not a part of the through-sung stage show. The only full-voiced singing is one line of “Memory,” when Hudson is allowed to unleash her powerful voice, but then she goes right back into sob-soaked tremulousness. Tom Hooper seemingly learned nothing from his previous debacle, Les Misérables, and once again he has his performers sing live, in a single take, probably in a (failed) attempt to bring some sort of humanity to this digital world. (This cannot be the same Tom Hooper who directed The King’s Speech.) Taylor Swift’s number requires someone with Broadway experience who knows how to stop a show, but that’s not a skill she possesses. (She does much better on the studio-recorded end-credits song, which she co-wrote with Lloyd Webber to get the obligatory Best New Song Oscar nom. It’s the best singing in the whole movie.) Surprisingly, Fairchild, who’s clearly worked mightily on his singing since switching from ballet to musical theatre, comes across well with his sweet and supple baritone. But the greatest singing in the world can’t overcome the banality of the score. The "Jellicle Cats" song is a skillful earworm of the variety that makes you want to take an ice pick to your auditory canal, though “Memory,” despite its irritating ubiquitousness, is actually pretty good, when someone actually sings it. But everything else sounds perfunctory and uninspired. Why write an actual song when you can just plink out a sequence of notes?

The riot of color and barely glimpsed set pieces, thanks to cinematographer Christopher Ross and production designer Eve Stewart, aren’t allowed to be seen in any intelligible way. The humanoid cats are supposed to be cat-sized, so the furnishings are large and looming, but the scale always seems to be aiming at consistency without ever quite achieving it. This go-round, Hooper is like Baz Luhrmann without the amphetamines, and there are big pauses and way too many quiet moments where nothing much is happening. I assume the stage show is a big loud assault (like Starlight Express), but in Hooper’s version, there’s so much damn quavery sing-talking and talk-singing that the effect is lulling. Hence the snoring gentleman.

In John Guare’s great comedy of manners, Six Degrees of Separation, the young con man passing himself off as Sidney Poitier’s son explains to his marks that his father is directing a movie of Cats:  "[H]e turned it down at first. He went to tell the producers – as a courtesy – all the reasons why you couldn’t make a movie of Cats and in going through the reasons why you couldn’t make a movie of Cats, he suddenly saw how you could make a movie of Cats . . . ” Tom Hooper has shown us how not to make a movie of Cats.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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