[20 November 2003]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Just in time for Thanksgiving: the Paris Hilton movie. Or more precisely, one of the Paris Hilton movies in circulation this year, including Wonderland (where she plays a bikinied yacht girl) and that other one all over the internet (where she reportedly plays herself). And here she is again, in The Cat in The Hat.
It’s true that our girl only appears for a few seconds, in an underground rave, bobbing her blond head and exhibiting her famously slender shoulders while dancing among a throng of glowstick-wielders. While Paris might have her reasons for being here, the stretch of plotting that has the Cat (Mike Meyers) and his buddies for the day, Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin) crashing to the party is surely strained. The children look on in wonder, as they do through much of this cumbersome movie, and the Cat gyrates. And then they leave, on to the next adventure.
It may be worth pondering just why director Bo Welch (who previously directed Tick episodes and designed sets for Tim Burton) and piled-on writers Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer have expanded Dr. Seuss’ classic tale to get the Cat to a rave in the first place. But let’s not.
As in the book, the film has the Cat coming to rescue young Sally and Conrad from their boredom as they gaze out their window in the small town of Anville. But this Cat is not charming or sweet. He’s not exciting or neat. He comes crashing into their lives, a sledgehammer of boffo entertainment so egregious that even the children doubt his uses. On his arrival, he announces that they have two options for curing their low scores on the Phunometer (she’s a control freak and he’s a rule-breaker: can you guess what life lessons they’ll learn by film’s end?). They can choose: 1) a series of painful injections or, 2) a musical number by the Cat Himself.
Thoughtful mini-manager Sally wisely inquires after the injections, but no good. The Cat launches into an extravaganza that has him dressed up in a series of garish outfits (Carmen Miranda, a matador) and juggling several objects (from the book, as I recall): an umbrella, a rake, a cake, etc. From here, Meyers goes on to channel performances by others and his own past characters in order to cobble together the Cat. Plainly if intermittently, he draws from Bert Lahr’s majestic Cowardly Lion for broad accent and bluster, as well as from his own Fat Bastard, Austin Powers, Goldmember, maybe a bit of Wayne and Linda, all mushed together to come up with a Cat who is shockingly uninteresting. “Oh yeah!” he repeats whenever called on for faux “commentary” on a peculiar event. It’s not exactly poetry.
All the Cat’s frightening activity—and especially, the leeway it grants Meyers—more or less emulates producer Brian Grazer’s other, humungously profitable Seussification, 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (which everyone remembers gave Jim Carrey a similarly unnecessary latitude to act up). It’s not long before you’re feeling sympathy for the kids, as they are beset by one self-loving performance from the Cat after another. And then, you see why the Cat looks like a good thing when you see the alternative mannish figure: they are besieged daily by purple-suited next-door neighbor Lawrence Quinn (an appalling Alec Baldwin), who seeks to marry their mom and be rid of his Oedipalish competition by shipping Conrad off to a military academy. How original.
Mom, by the way, has a name and a job (unlike in the book). Joan (good sport in pink Kelly Preston) spends much of the movie at work, that is, a real estate office where she’s verbally assaulted by her flibberty-gibberty monster of a boss, Mr. Humberfloob (Sean Hayes in hyperdrive: someone please give him a chill pill). Assigned to host the office party on the evening of the day the film takes place, she warns the children especially that the place must remain immaculate or she will be fired. And so, of course, they are increasingly anxious as the Cat’s shenanigans disrupt and ruin the house.
As tedious as the plotting of The Cat in the Hat surely is, the supposedly goofy and hijinksy material is equally annoying. Though its frantic pacing, illogic, and convulsions might seem appropriate for kids who watch cartoons, the jokes tend to be laborious (see, for instance, the spastic Thing 1 and Thing 2, the latter for some reason adopting the nickname “Chocolate Thunder”), for the most part, the movie lacks that light touch that makes the books so much fun to revisit. Not least among its offenses is the babysitter, Mrs. Kwan (Amy Hill), whose thick glasses, Mimi Bobeck-ish makeup, “Chinese” accent, buckish teeth, and absolute inability to stay awake for more than 20 seconds are all—in a word—horrendous.
Here’s an idea: spend the afternoon reading the book, with your children or on your own. Splendiferous fun for all.