At least for me, film festivals carry a mythical ethos. Movies that win the top prizes at Sundance, Cannes, or TIFF certainly carry the prestigiousness of critics and movie snobs, but also the ethos of intelligently made movies that are more rewarding than summer or superhero blockbusters. And the ripple effects of festival awards reach broader pop culture. Consider how the triumph of Winter’s Bone at Sundance in 2010 eventually produced an Oscar nomination for Jennifer Lawrence and launched her stardom. Or consider how Whiplash‘s big festival wins in 2014 foreshadowed an Academy Award for J.K. Simmons and made Damien Chazelle a household name. (Ok, fine, that was his next movie La La Land).
But what about movies that flop at film festivals? What happens to them? Are they any good? (Are questions you’ve never asked, but if you had…). They end up free to stream on Amazon Prime like Murder of a Cat. A perfect case study, Murder of a Cat checks all the following boxes:
- A movie that flopped at Tribeca, a second-tier film festival.
- The answer to what else J.K. Simmons was doing in 2014, besides Whiplash.
- The intrigue of a one-and-done director, Gillian Greene, who’s also Sam Raimi’s wife.
Gillian Greene was well set-up to succeed. She chose a script from the Black List, a collection of screenplays that includes Spotlight, The Revenant, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, and There Will Be Blood. She had Sam Raimi produce the movie. And she recruited JK Simmons and Greg Kinnear to reprise the roles they played in Raimi’s The Gift. (Simmons is once again the town sheriff and Kinnear is once again…[SPOILER!]…the killer). What could go wrong? Well, as it turns out, a lot.
Murder of a Cat uses the genre of film noir to tell a comedic coming-of-age story. That’s a fine line to walk, which requires both A) an interesting crime and B) a great actor. Cat fails hard on both fronts. The crime is little more than smuggling electronics out of a superstore, and even the movie’s three fresh reviews call Fran Kranz’s man-child “mostly annoying” (he’s terrible). The movie plays as a dry series of events, but Greg Kinnear has a lot of fun with his role. Which means, gosh dang it, we’re having fun with this review!
Murder of a Cat (2014)
Fran Kranz is a grown man living in his mom’s basement in a fictional California town near Petaluma. He ran a small shop selling comic books and homemade figurines, until it went under. Now he spends his days lounging in his bathrobe, watching TV, and playing with his cat Mouser. Until one morning he finds Mouser shot dead by an arrow. Utterly grieved, he recruits the town sheriff (Simmons) to solve the murder. Simmons could care less (both about the death and being in this movie), and instead has the hots for Kranz’s mom.
Kranz strikes out on his own to solve the murder, and soon discovers Mouser was living a double life. The cat had a second owner, played by Nikki Reed of Twilight fame. (I live to remind people of the Twilight series, and Nikki played Edward’s sister Rosalie [as if you could forget]. Also, Nikki’s exactly six days older than me. Fun fact, I guess). Nikki lives in a retirement home where she runs a barbershop out of her room.
Kranz discovers the crossbow that killed Mouser was sold by a superstore owned by Kinnear. After an initial visit to the store with Kranz, Nikki refuses to investigate further because she used to work there. Kranz goes ‘undercover’ to find out two employees are smuggling electronics out of the store to flip for profit. The two employees beat up Kranz, which somehow gives Nikki the hots for him. Then Kranz realizes the employees must use a ‘fence’ to sell the electronics, and he brings this information to Kinnear. Kinnear has turned from a confident salesman to a manic drunk, because his wife is divorcing him and he’s bankrupt. So he takes Kranz to Nikki’s home, where he uses a baseball bat to smash her car. He then tells Kranz that Nikki’s the fence.
But obviously Nikki wasn’t the fence. It was Kinnear, who was also super in love with Nikki. Kinnear killed Nikki’s cat because she loved the cat more than him (or something like that). In the climatic scene, Kinnear shoots Kranz twice in the left leg with the crossbow (because he’s jealous that Kranz is Nikki’s new lover…or something like that) and then considers killing himself. He doesn’t and goes to jail. Kranz develops a limp in his right leg (as if he/the director forgot which leg was shot), gets his own apartment, and adopts a cat with Nikki. The end. Thank goodness.
To its credit, Murder of a Cat had funny moments. For example, Kranz holds a vigil on his roof for his cat where he sings along to a bagpipes rendition of ‘Amazing Grace.’ One of the shady superstore employees, played by Leonardo Nam, is tripped-out-crazy at work but the perfect, accomplished Asian son at home. This dichotomy was both clever and funny. The supporting cast was also good. Nikki Reed was better-than-average, and Greg Kinnear had fun. J.K. Simmons looked extremely bored, but that’s on Greene for ignoring his disinterest in playing yet another police officer.
But this movie was mostly a drag, like a book you’ve partially read but feel obliged to finish. Kranz never matures, despite the obvious visual metaphor of swapping early-film bathrobes for late-film suits. Instead, all other characters undergo jolting, illogical transitions to make Kranz look heroic. In a single scene, Nikki swaps annoyance with Kranz’s cat obsession for attraction to his obsessively caring nature. In a single scene, Kinnear swaps managerial confidence for the despondency of a jilted lover. Finally, the ending negates everything that came before. Kinnear killed Nikki’s cat over relationship jealousy, which is both immature and entirely unrelated to the “electronics smuggling ring” plot that comprises 75% of the movie.
Kinnear the Cat Killer
One of my two-year-old daughter’s favorite books is Kim Smith’s children’s spoof of the X-Files, Earth Children Are Weird. Whenever my daughter wants to read it, she’ll repeatedly exclaim “weird” as she tracks down the book. This gleeful exclamation of “weird” is how I feel about Kinnear’s performance in Murder of a Cat. First things first, his mustache is terrible. It feels like the wardrobe team glued the cheapest, scraggliest mustache they could find to Kinnear’s face. It’s a far facial hair cry from his marvelous mustache in Matador, his simmering shadow in Stuck in Love, or his bodacious beards in Brigsby Bear. Set this as the low mark in the hierarchy of Kinnear’s on-screen facial hair.
Despite this hairy hurdle, Kinnear comes out swinging. In his first scenes, he struts his stuff as a confident, smug store manager. He easily rebuffs Nikki’s and Kranz’s attempts to interrogate him and boycott his store, while also sporting lovesick facial expressions. It’s obvious from the get-go he has history with Nikki. But in his next scenes, Kinnear takes a 180 degree turn into manic drunk. At first, this character is great. Kinnear ‘jolts alive’ and, as he manically smashes Nikki’s car with a bat, it’s clear he’s having the most fun in this movie.
But as the mania dissipates into despondency, I tired of his character. At the movie’s climax, Kranz finds Kinnear waiting for Nikki outside a bar (right before Kinnear discovers the Kranz/Nikki relationship and shoots Kranz). Kinnear rambles at length, telling Kranz of his high school ambitions to be an actor. This scene was utterly painful to watch, and I now know that “Kinnear does not do drunk.” He was drunk for an extended scene in Matador, but was mostly silent thereby masking this acting deficiency.
To recap, lousy mustache and weird character for Greg Kinnear. His character had three phases: superstore supervisor with swagger, manic drunk, despondent drunk. The first two phases were quite enjoyable, while the third was very much not.
- Sam Raimi’s wife, Gillian Greene, took her one-and-only turn in the director’s chair with Murder of a Cat. She even recruited J.K. Simmons & Greg Kinnear to reprise similar roles from Raimi’s The Gift.
- Murder of a Cat was both a film noir with terribly uninteresting crimes (a cat’s murder unearths a scheme to smuggle electronics!) and a coming-of-age story with an annoying man-child (Fran Kranz) who doesn’t mature. Basically it’s a drag, even if it’s free on Amazon Prime.
- Kinnear’s performance was X-files-for-children level weird. He should be forbidden from ever playing a despondent drunk, unless he’s silent.
- Next-up: I’m quite excited to watch Heaven is for Real, the movie based on a book I sold lots of copies of in high school. I’ve recruited some friends to help me with this post, and it should be fun.
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