Murder of a Cat was a late addition to the lineup of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I’m happy that I had a chance to see it before the festival ended because this offbeat comedy is like the screwy lovechild of Napoleon Dynamite and The Big Lebowski. Though it is a bit more self-aware than either of those comedies and isn’t quite as funny, Murder of a Cat is a very amusing send-up of the private eye investigative movie with several humorous performances.
Clinton (a perfectly-cast Fran Kranz) is a basement-dwelling thirtysomething who lives with his mother (Blythe Danner) and attempts to make a living by selling comic books and custom-made action figures on his front lawn alongside his “best friend,” a 17 year-old cat named Mouser. Like many other man-children in Clinton’s situation, Clinton blames his stalled life on others — especially on Ford’s Megastore owner Ford (Greg Kinnear). Clinton blames the Wal-Mart-like Ford’s for putting local stores, like a comic book store he used to own, out of business. Of course, Clinton’s mother points out that since Ford’s Megastore doesn’t sell comic books it was in no way his competitor, but Clinton will hear none of it.
When it seems like nothing will snap Clinton out of his boring life, he awakes the morning after binge-watching Who’s The Boss? reruns to discover that his cat is dead with a crossbow arrow sticking out of him. When local law enforcement, including his mother’s boyfriend Sheriff Hoyle (J.K. Simmons, who is wonderful as usual) admit that there’s little they can do to find out who killed Mouser, it gives Clinton the kick in the pants that he needs to do something constructive with his life. He begins investigating the murder, soon finding himself wrapped up with the beautiful Greta (Nikki Reed), who had her own special relationship with Mouser.
What makes Murder of a Cat so entertaining is that the basic plot is straight out of a private eye thriller — except instead of a dead person it’s a dead cat, and instead of a square-jawed investigator like Sam Spade it’s Fran Kranz with bad virgin hair. Nevertheless, the movie hits all of the expected beats you’d see in those types of movies, except with much lower stakes, which is what makes it hilarious. Then again, one of the reasons why it works is that to Clinton this is all very serious business. It makes the proceedings that much funnier to see Clinton gradually shift himself into the persona of a Hollywood private eye. Even the Mission: Impossible-like soundtrack by composer Deborah Lurie (who has worked on dozens of films) adds to the humor. To me this was a brilliant touch — I mean, how many movies have you seen in which the score is actually part of the movie’s humor?
The fact that the movie actually works as an procedural narrative is actually pretty amazing, which means all of the humor just makes it funnier. Because of that, I actually think the movie is probably more funnier based on your knowledge of detective movies, so I imagine that some audiences might look at Murder of a Cat as something they just don’t “get” (not unlike some people’s reaction to Napoleon Dynamite).
This is the first feature directed by Gillian Greene, who is the wife of Sam Raimi (Sam’s brother Ted Raimi has a small cameo as another sheriff). It is also the first feature written by New Girl writers Robert Snow and Christian Magalhaes. Perhaps the biggest “rookie” mistake here is that the creators didn’t push the humor further. That’s because Murder of a Cat sort of tows the line between a satire and over-the-top parody. I kept waiting for the film to go full-quirk, but something (unfortunately) convinced everyone to keep it grounded.
But as it is Murder of a Cat is a quirky gem that I think a lot of fans of spoof-style comedies will love. I’m definitely interested in seeing what else Greene can bring to the table as a filmmaker, and this film could finally put Kranz on the comedy map after years of bouncing around the outskirts of Joss Whedon films.
RATING: A clever spoof of private eye movies with several hilarious moments (7/10).