By Joel Liss
One of the few truly great jokes to come out of the ten years of NBC’s Friends occured in a season three episode called “The One With The Screamer.” It pays off a season-long arc about Joey starring in – what we are shown to be – a traditional kitchen-sink drama on stage. However, in the last few moments of the episode we are shown the true nature of the play. Joey’s character announces in a monologue that he is “going to go to glaigon seven,” and suddenly the ladder to a UFO descends down onto the stage, accompanied by blazing fog and colorful, flashing lights. I’ve seen the bit a few times, and I always laugh at its absurdity. How can you not? I have to assume that attending the stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is a little like this moment stretched out to 3 hours of spectacle. An absurd oddity that, for whatever reason, has been classified in many people’s mind as very very good, the winner of the Tony and Lawrence Oliver Award for Best Musical. A smash hit. A Broadway classic.
Maybe it’s a generational thing, but for a good chunk of young America familiar with musical theater, Cats has always been a joke. And a pretty good one, at that. I think back to the musical’s presence in the final season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, where Tituss Burgess’ Titus discovers that Cats isn’t a real musical at all, but a collection of wannabe actors who stitch together their own costumes and invade the stage with made-up songs. The joke works because, yeah, Cats feels like it’s being made up as we go along, right down to its final number where we are told the lesson of the story was, of course, that “a cat is not a dog.” No shit.
Cats, the musical and subsequently the musical movie, is just a parade of actors introducing themselves one by one, ostensibly to compete for the “jellicle” honor of ascending to the “heaviside layer.” (There are a lot of made up words in this thing. I say, roll with the punches or you’ll lose your mind.) I had studied up enough before heading out to the theater to know that the introductions never really stop until the final number, and I thought I had a fairly firm grasp on the structure of the film. But then Cats threw a curveball at me. Turns out, there’s a villian. Kind of. Idris Elba’s McCavity. Watching Idris Elba play the villain in the cats movie is akin to finding out that Idris Elba is a DJ who works under the names “DJ Big Driis,” “Big Driis the Londoner,” “Big Driis”, “7Dub” and “Me Innit.”
That Elba manages to turn in the worst performance in the film is a testament to just how poorly conceived McCavity is as both a character and a villian. Elba, who’s turned into one of the most reliable screen villains of the modern movie era, has unexplainably been instructed to play the entire part at the same goofy register as James Corden. The character as written isn’t terribly engaging either. He’s a cat with magical powers (magic is real in this world, deal with it) hell-bent on going to the heaviside layer. He chooses to use his powers to pick off his competition one by one, usually right after they’ve introduced themselves. This means that, structurally, Cats the movie most closely resembles an 80s slasher film – character introduction, character killed by villian, rinse, dry, repeat for 95 minutes, leaving just enough time to eke out something resembling an ending.
None of this is helped by the VFX decisions made by director Tom Hooper. There isn’t much use taking a deep dive into the nightmare that is Cat-People (not to be confused with Cat People.) We’ve all seen the trailers. I know I watched it at least once a day when it first came out last summer. The effect sits so comfortably deep in the uncanny valley that I’m worried it might sink into the earth’s core. The effects are neither better nor worse in the film than they were in the trailer. And while, admittedly, the WTF factor does begin to wear off after a while, the haphazard execution never ceases to distract. You may have heard that Universal even pulled the unprecedented move of sending a new cut to theaters with updated graphics a few days into its initial release. I was lucky enough to catch the original, human hands fully intact.
You may have also heard that, thus far, Cats has been a box-office bomb. Publications such as Deadline and THR have attempted to pick apart why exactly its failed, laying the blame on the family audiences that never turned out to see this abomination of cinema. I say forget the families. Forget the entire original strategies. Cult favorites like Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room don’t come around all that often. If Universal plays their cards right, they might just be able to turn this dead cat into a cash cow. Take notes Donna Langley, here’s my unsolicited advice:
Step 1: Stop Taking it Seriously.
This is key. Audiences don’t flock to midnight screening of The Room to be moved by Johnny’s plight, and they’re not going to Cats for emotional resonance either. Universal has already suspended its FYC campaign, which is good. The last thing they want is an Oscar nomination, even for Best Original Song. No, from now on, Cats is nothing but a joke.
Step 2: Release a Sing-Along Version to Theaters Immediately.
If this is going to work then Cats is going to need rowdy crowds. Universal should make clear that screens showing Cats are not your average theaters, singing, chanting, and mocking along should be encouraged whenever possible. Cultivate an engaged audiences as quickly as possible.
Step 3: Keep it in Theaters, and Off Streaming.
A key to The Room’s early success was its lack of access. Even now, the only way to own a copy of the movie is to buy it directly from Tommy Wiseau. Universal needs to keep Cats off of streaming services where it could run the risk of being played out. Instead, they should focus on keeping the spirit alive with midnight screenings as often as possible. This leads me to…
Step 4: Jason Derulo.
The Room screenings have Tommy Wiseau Q&As, and cats need some of that weirdo star wattage too. Jason Derulo can’t stop talking about how his dick was airbrushed out of the film, so he’s the obvious choice.
Step 5: Licensing.
This is the real trick to keeping Cats fervor alive. I look forward to a world where Cats shadow casts are all the rage with amateur college theater troupes. It’s just off-puttingly sexual enough for that crowd to really latch onto and run with, and with a few drinks in you it will be a jolly good time.
Good luck Universal, and whatever you do, remember: Stop letting Tom Hooper direct musicals.