Attention, moviegoers searching for the worst movie of the year: We have a late-breaking winner. Cats slips in right under the radar and easily scores as the bottom of the 2019 barrel — and arguably of the decade. Even Michael Bay’s trash trilogy of soul-destroying Transformers movies can’t hold a candle. What happened?
Wasn’t the stage production of Cats — music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by poet T.S. Eliot — an award-winning smash from Broadway to Tokyo? It was. But in this all-star, all-awful screen version, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech’s, Les Miserables), everything that should work goes calamitously wrong. The first trailer earned hisses on social media. The full movie, inert and as indigestible as a hairball, is much, much worse.
Shot on a soundstage to suggest a bad feline-themed Halloween party, the film — like the show — is based on Eliot’s beloved 1939 poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. That means that over a single night in London, a tribe of junkyard cats called Jellicles run a talent show to prove their worthiness to the chief judge, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, a Dame who deserved better). The prize? The chosen feline will ascend to cat heaven, known as the Heaviside Layer, and be reborn into a better life where presumably no one will ever be forced to sit through this movie.
Talent is misused all through the film: There’s Sir Ian McKellan as Gus the Theater Cat, singing of his lost youth; Idris Elba as Macavity, the monster of depravity; and — God help her — Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, his accomplice in crime. Hooper traps the actors in an airless, lifeless bubble of a film that scarcely gives them room to breathe, much less develop a character. Instead, he misguidedly covers them in digital fur and bizarre makeup.
The opening number about Jellicle cats, in which the word “Jellicle” is repeatedly drilled into your ears until you want to cry for mercy, serves as a warning of the punishment ahead. Dreamgirls Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson fares best at pretending she’s in something worthwhile. Now that’s acting! As the aging glamour cat Grizabella, Hudson nearly busts a lung over-emoting on the show’s only memorable song, “Memory.” To hear this musical-theater standard done glorious, haunting justice, listen to Betty Buckley’s take on the tune — she won a Tony award for playing the part in the Broadway version. Her immortal version of the tune actually does stick in the, well, memory.
The rest you will definitely want to banish to oblivion. It falls to genius Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler to adapt Gillian Lynne’s stage dances for the screen. His work may be impressive, but you’d never know it from the manic way Hooper keeps cutting from long shots to medium shots to close-ups so that the eye can never appreciate the simple beauty of a full body in graceful motion.
To give narrative shape to a show that has none, the director and his co-writer Lee Hall have added a new character: She’s Victoria, played by ballerina Francesca Hayward as our guide to various cat habitats from Trafalgar Square to a railroad track. Lloyd Webber has also included a new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” shunning existing verses from Eliot for another poetical T.S. (think “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off”). The song, meant to enhance “Memory” and perhaps improve on it, fails in both cases. Sorry, Ms. Swift.
And so we’re left with a movie in which assorted stars step up to do their big number and vanish. There’s Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, dancing with cockroaches. And there’s James Corden, hamming it to the hilt and beyond as Bustopher Jones, the gluttonous cat. And look! It’s Jason Derulo as the self-admiring Rum Tum Tugger. The lesser known Laurie Davidson plays the magical Mr. Mistoffelees and his big number is actually — wait for it — passable. The moment is fleeting.
Let the sheer grinding monotony of Cats stand as a measuring stick for future cinematic takes on Broadway musicals that hope to match its unparalleled, bottom-feeding dreadfulness. In his prize-winning Angels in America, playwright Tony Kushner wrote a scene in which the rat-bastard lawyer Roy Cohn is on the phone sucking up to a client who wants tickets to a Broadway smash. When the caller says, “Cats,” Cohn sticks his fingers down his throat and mock vomits. Look for that gesture to be repeated by all who must endure this hellish fiasco of a film version. This disaster of a movie shouldn’t happen to a dog.