Cats (Hooper, 2019)

There is an early episode of The Simpsons, oft-quoted in the Morefield household, in which Mr. Burns hires MLB All-Stars to play as ringers on the corporate softball team and then inexplicably benches Darryl Strawberry (a left-handed hitter) for Homer when the bases are loaded in the championship game.

“That’s called ‘playing the percentages,'” rasped in a Burns-like voice henceforward became an allusive way of indicating some leader was being too smart by half. “But I’ve got nine home runs today,” Strawberry’s response, is also a quote I’ve used more than once when I’ve experienced or witnessed a managerial or leadership decision so misguided it almost feels like deliberate sabotage.

To make my analogy clear — Tom Hooper equals Mr. Burns and Darryl Strawberry equals Jennifer Hudson. When Cats reaches the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and the movie in the balance, Hooper doesn’t exactly bench his best player, but neither does he let her swing away.

Instead we get a version of “Memory” that not only starts with but persists with Grizabella so broken that it never reaches the triumphant, climactic heights that the show needs it to reach.

Two points of emphasis. First, the way Hudson delivers the song takes talent, which I believe she has in abundance. This is not, not, not, an issue of buttressing a performer in over her head. I can only assume it was a deliberate choice, for reasons clear to Hooper the director and writer, to distance the song and its rendition from the more familiar iterations of it embedded in pop-culture memory.

The second and more important point of emphasis is that this decision guts the movie. Cats is and always has been a somewhat insubstantial show. It’s a performer’s show, and its pleasures are found primarily in its dances, costumes, and art design rather than in a glut of memorable (no pun intended) show stoppers. To the extent this frivolous, whimsical material has any emotional weight, it is delivered in one resounding knockout blow. Structurally, thematically, rhythmically, the show is built around “Memory.” If that song brings the house down, nothing else matters. If it doesn’t, we’re left with a series of vignettes that proceed in “Now…This” fashion and run the gamut from modestly entertaining to awkwardly awkward.

Grizabella falters not only before but during her song, and she is rescued vocally and physically by Victoria (Francesca Hayward). Having the ballerina horn in on the diva’s signature number is not quite as mind-boggling as sitting Darryl Strawberry for Homer Simpson, but it’s close. Hayward, when she is dancing or moving, is a joy to watch, but we don’t cut away from her dancing for reaction shots of the singers, so why or why are we chopping up the vocal centerpiece and distributing bits and pieces of it to anyone other than Hudson?

I will reluctantly go ahead and be *that* guy and also insist that the relationship posited between Grizabella and Victoria has some uncomfortable racial overtones. Given the frame story that the Jellicle Cats are all competing for the right to be born again, it’s hard not to see the white mother (Judi Dench) as a god-like figure and the black antagonist (Macavity) as the devil. It’s not enough, though, that the white mother lifts the black daughter from abject poverty of spirit — the black cat can only find the courage to put herself forward when prompted and indeed buttressed by her white sister.

The racial overtones are not the only part of the material that don’t play well to the current cultural audience. James Corden’s Bustopher Jones chows down on whatever is in sight and Rebel Wilson swallows a few animated mice whole because licking her thunder-thighs cat-style presumably doesn’t drive home the “fat is funny!” message clearly enough. I don’t think I am obsessed with scolding people because their entertainment choices are not body-positive, but I do think it is fair to point out that the production elements of Cats has pretty much always glossed over its flat, uninteresting characters.

I did not think going in that I had much invested in Cats. I still don’t. Yet, I am hard pressed to explain how angry the film made me. Perhaps as a theater student whose life revolved around high-school drama in the ’80s, I care more about the idea of this movie than in the artifact itself. Perhaps movies that get your hopes up only to dash them late are more painful than ones that allow you to remain cynical and aloof throughout.

Or perhaps I just wanted to hear Jennifer Hudson sing the song the way it is meant to be sung.

Postscript: I know Taylor Swift is in this movie. She is fine. Her talents as a singer relative to Jennifer Hudson’s are immaterial to the point I am trying to make. If the primary reason you are going is to hear/see Taylor Swift, you may well enjoy the movie.

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