The Cat in the Hat and Gothika (review)

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Best and Worst

(The Cat in the Hat: Worst of 2003)

Isn’t it odd, how just as that time of the year comes around when we critics and lots of other people who love movies are starting to think about all the superlatives of the past year, that we have together in a single weekend the most terrifying film of 2003 as well as one of the funniest.

Of course, in a switcheroo jape worthy of the real Cat in the Hat, it’s not the latest adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book that’s the funny film I refer to, and it’s not the most recent attempt to give you nightmares that’s the terrifying one.

For true nightmare-inducing terror, Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat is the film to beat, and Gothika can’t hope to stand a chance against it. The title itself is an affront, for there’s nothing Seussian about it, and in fact it makes 2000’s The Grinch, which at the time was the most abyssal insult to Seuss I could imagine, look like a masterpiece of wit and subtlety. Who in their right mind would consider a nonstop barrage of toilet humor and riffs on late-night infomercials and gross-outs and a sexually aggressive six-foot-tall cat and creepy children and illegal employment practices the stuff of a good film, never mind a good film for kids?

I’ll tell ya who: screenwriters Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer, whose joint and separate credits include The Harvard Lampoon, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Saturday Night Live. An impressive resume, perhaps, but hardly the sort of experience any producer in his right mind should be looking for when seeking writers of a film for children, unless said producer is actually intending to bring to the screen a disaster of these exact skin-crawlingly epic proportions.

You’ve seen it in the trailers for the film: The Cat picks up a framed photo of the kids’ mom — which inexplicably fold out into the suggestion of a Playboy centerfold — and the Cat’s flaccid hat springs to attention. This is plainly wrong on so many levels. Why would a cat get turned on by a human? Why is there a boner joke in a children’s movie? People will dismiss this with a “Oh, it’ll go right over the kids’ heads,” but that’s not the point. The entire film consists of things that Oh, that’ll go right over the kids’ heads, and these things are not like the stuff that went over our heads in, say, the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, which are suddenly full of sly cleverness when you watch them again as an adult. The Cat in the Hat is full of idiocy that when you watch it as an adult, makes you queasy.

Come on: If you take away Mike Myers’s (View from the Top, Austin Powers in Goldmember) bizarre take on the Cat, somewhere between Art Carney and his “Coffee Talk” lady, plus hat boners; and you take away Mom’s (Kelly Preston: What a Girl Wants, Battlefield Earth) kowtowing obsequiousness to her boss, Mr. Humberfloob; and you take away Sean Hayes (Cats & Dogs) as Humberfloob, a Howard Hughes-esque clean freak who fires his employees if they dare to shake his hand and share their germs with him; and you take away the stick up little Sally’s (Dakota Fanning: Uptown Girls, Sweet Home Alabama) ass and the fluff in little Conrad’s (Spencer Breslin: Santa Clause 2, The Kid) head; and you take away Alec Baldwin (The Royal Tenenbaums, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) as the manipulating slob of a neighbor who’s after Mom and hates the kids, and who can blame him on the latter count?; and you take away everything that’s weird and repulsive and vile and uncomfortable and icky, what’s left? I’ll tell ya what’s left: production design. Purple houses and pink business suits and curlicue clouds and stripes and polka dots and everything looking like a box of Crayola crayons exploded. The director, Bo Welch, making his debut as a director, is a former production designer, so there you go: You wanna make a film that’s like a forced march through Candyland, you hired writers from late-night TV to come up with witless yucks and you hire a director who only cares that it looks like a toy store.

Of course, The Cat in the Hat made $40 gazillion this opening weekend, which Hollywood will interpret as a sign that this is the kind of film that kids and moms and dads are genuinely enjoying, and not a sign that this is the most disgustingly overly marketed film in recent memory and you can’t watch a commercial for household cleaning products or walk by a Burger King or buy a postage stamp without being assaulted by a six-foot-tall cat and we all know few parents can resist the high-pitched whine of a kid who’s been overly marketed at and will simply not shut up until he gets what he wants: in this case, a ticket to Cat in the Hat and a Value Combo. On Hollywood’s terms, I guess that’s considered successful. All I know is if I have to look much longer at those damned weird little midget Things in their leotards trying to sell me Delivery Confirmation at the post office, I’m gonna go postal.

For real laughs, albeit unintended ones, hie thee to Gothika. Gothika… Gothika… Isn’t that the hot new metal band from Romania? Wasn’t that Morticia Addams’s sister’s name? Ya gotta know that that title has been floating around for years, just waiting for the right wishy-washy darkish would-be thriller to come along that needed its oomph. Kinda like how the drug companies coined the nonsense word “Viagra” long before there was the right revitalizing, invigorating pill to go along with it. Heh, now I’m the one making boner jokes — don’t worry, it’ll go right over the kids’ heads — but an injection of mojo is what this pathetic flick needs, and the title ain’t enough.

There isn’t anything particularly gothic about Gothika, but gosh, that’s a cool word, isn’t it? Gothika… Gothika… scary. I suspect that Woodward Penitentiary for Women is supposed to be all gothic and spooky, but it really just seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen — the place makes Shawshank look like The Plaza, all medieval monks’ cells and electricity that never works. I would imagine that constantly flickering, constantly buzzing fluorescent lighting would be considered a form of torture to the prisoner-patients, but who cares: They’re all crazy anyway, so who would believe that the flickering and buzzing was driving them nuts?

The particular problems of crazy people are the issue here. As Halle Berry teaches us, “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy.” As a catchphrase, it just doesn’t have the oomph of “I see dead people,” but in Gothika‘s defense, that one was already taken. Berry does indeed see dead people, one dead girl in her undies who comes back from a watery grave to haunt Berry, and perhaps Berry’s dead husband, whom Berry herself may or may not have murdered.

Berry’s (X2: X-Men United, Die Another Day) Miranda Grey wakes up at Woodward, where she’s been incarcerated and drugged up, and here’s where it starts getting really bad, and really funny. Never mind that Miranda is actually Dr. Grey, a staff psychologist at the prison, and that there’s gotta be something seriously ethically dubious about throwing one of the jailers in with the prisoners, and not even in any kind of solitary or protective custody. Nope: she’s just tossed in with the general population, where, say, vicious delusional murderer Chloe Sava (Penélope Cruz: Blow, Woman on Top), who tried to strangle Miranda just a few days earlier and had to be forcibly detached from Miranda’s throat, now has easy and ready access to her nemesis.

That’s bad, but not funny. Funny is realizing, from the very opening moments of the film, how precisely constructed it is for obviousness. Nothing doesn’t happen for a plot-contrived reason at Woodward — absolutely every single little event in the scenes before Miranda is thrown in a cell will have a manifest payoff later. That after-work swim in the prison’s pool? Underwater’s a great place to hide during an escape attempt. That offhand, genial pleasantry with a coworker? He’ll be the one person to lend a friendly hand later on, when everyone else seems to have forgotten how they all respected and admired and revered you. Hallucinatory ramblings by inmates that Miranda dismisses? Completely grounded in reality and vital clues, all.

Halle Berry, Queen of Overactors Who Aren’t In On The Joke, throws tantrums, yells a lot, and lets her lip quiver to signify intensity. But it’s hardly her fault that Miranda is probably the world’s dumbest psychologist, who puts herself in stupid danger even beyond that the script puts her in. But she learns her lesson well by the finale. Oh, the lesson isn’t “Don’t get thrown in the nuthatch for killing your husband” but “Logical, rational men are evil or ineffectual. Silly irrational girls rule! Yea!”

The Cat in the Hat
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG for mild crude humor and some double-entendres
official site | IMDB

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for violence, brief language and nudity
official site | IMDB

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