Hey, who doesn't like their Lifetime Christmas cat movies with child rape jokes?! Lifetime, via Lionsgate, has released Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever, a 2014 made-for-TV movie that originally aired this past November during the Thanksgiving holiday. Starring that internet "sensation," Grumpy Cat (a.k.a Tardar Sauce), along with Megan Charpentier (the only bright note here), Daniel Roebuck, Russell Peters, and Aubrey Plaza as the voice of Grumpy Cat, Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever's biggest offense isn't its incredibly stupid knock-off plot, or Plaza's profoundly unfunny vocal delivery and ad-libs, or its tone of self-referential self-loathing (which is a phony put-on, anyway), or even the fact that Grumpy herself is so unengaging. No, this "holiday" movie's most egregious outrage is that it relentlessly promotes and upholds skepticism and derision and nothingness for its own sake...which would have been just fine if Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever had actually entertained while it was castigating itself and us. Unfortunately, it doesn't; inbetween the on-screen requests for tweets and merchandise orders (see, they're honest about their greed...that makes it okay), it only asks us from us cheap, queasy snorts of contempt...and it can't even manage to scrounge up those. A few bonuses are included to persuade you to hate even more the people involved in this complete failure.
Sensitive, lonely 12-year-old Chrystal (Megan Charpentier) spends most of her off-school time at the mall where her divorced mother (Shauna Johannesen) works. Helping out at the mall's pet store, Chrystal is unaware that the owner, Marcus (David Lewis), is soon to be evicted by mall manager Gil Brockman (Tyler Johnston), for non-payment of rent. Indicative of Marcus' financial troubles is Grumpy Cat (voice "talent" of Aubrey Plaza), a puss who keeps getting returned to Marcus' store because she's too...grumpy. Marcus, however, has an ace up his sleeve: his rare dog, JoJo (voice talent of Stephen Stanton) is worth over a million dollars, so Marcus will use him as much-needed publicity for the store, before he sells him. However, mall rats and would-be rockers Donny and Zack (Isaac Haig and Evan Todd) decide they're going to steal JoJo...if they can evade the watchful eye of mall security guard George (Daniel Roebuck), a friend of Chrystal's. A chance encounter between Chrystal and a mysterious mall Santa (Russell Peters), leads to a remarkable development: Chrystal, wishing for a friend to understand her, discovers she can suddenly communicate with Grumpy, who proves to be just as dyspeptic as her pushed-in little face suggests. Will Grumpy help Chrystal foil Donny's and Zack's heist?
Now, fair play: I enjoy a good internet meme for about five minutes (Condescending Wonka)...as well as the occasional cat video over the years (my favorite is that big, yellow senile cat screaming over and over again at a smaller black cat, before it tries to rip it to pieces). So I'm not entirely immune to the small, initial "pleasure impulse" triggered by the sight of one of those Grumpy Cat memes. I didn't go into Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever with any preconceived notions, or with a ready-made chip on my shoulder (if you've read any of my reviews, you'll know that commercial considerations vs. "art" is a mostly meaningless canard when honestly discussing movies). And as one of the few reviewers out there who admits whole-heartedly to being a capitalist to the DNA (as opposed to so many who loudly proclaim the Party line in their reviews...while hustling a buck just like everyone else offline), I have zero problems with the owners of Tardar Sauce making as much scratch off her hide as possible, and for as long as they possibly can (and anyone who claims differently would sell their souls to have the same chance at having such easy money just fall into their laps). If those owners and managers can somehow take a solitary image of a little kitty with a pushed-in face and wrangle it into a Lifetime movie deal, then more power to them.
With that being said...don't think my base admiration for naked exploitation is going to translate into an automatic "pass" for Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever if it fails its first and last test: does it entertain me. If taken seriously, there's a lot you could get worked-up over in this Lifetime holiday movie. Cultural subtexts and crass commercialism aside for a moment, the Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever movie itself, is one of the worst examples of that unique cable TV subgenre I've seen (and that's saying something). Written by Jeff Morris and SpongeBob SquarePants vet Tim Hill (who also directed), Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever, just from the most basic standards of storytelling, is incredibly inept (and no, you can't say that because it was meant as a "goof," it doesn't really matter that it's put together like sh*t). Nakedly, even outrageously ripping off movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Home Alone, Beethoven, Garfield, Cats and Dogs, and even the old SNL skit, Toonces the Driving Cat (which had more genuine laughs in any one of its three-minute bits than can be found in this 90 minute telemovie's entirety), Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever lurches from ABC Afterschool Special profundity (Chrystal is so lonely), to hackneyed Lifetime movie dynamics (in the "B" story, the missing dad's a "dirt bag," and newly-single mom wants to get laid bad enough that she misplaces her kid), to John Hughes-inspired slapstick (the interminable mall heist). None of it gells, with its wildly-swinging focus repeatedly passed-off as deliberately planned kitsch (every time you realize the movie blows, Aubrey Plaza deadpans, "You're right, stupid--whadjaexpect?" and that's supposed to make it all okay), while its "jokes" fall flatter than Tardar Sauce's little punim (at the movie's end, Plaza jokes that it's not that kind of Lifetime movie when Mom literally looks Chrystal up and down and asks if her kidnappers "did" anything to her. Hey, Mom, and Dad! How funny is that?!).
Which just leaves the cat and the merchandising...and all the underlying cynicism. First off, Grumpy Cat herself. All I can say for Tardar Sauce is: at least Flipper and Benji could do tricks. Even Grumpy's spiritual grandfather, TV's Morris the Cat, could be counted on to jump a bit when that bag of cat food was waved in his face. Grumpy, on the other hand, is clearly "shot around" in this movie, with stunt doubles and even puppets doing any kind of required movement for this sphynx-like creature. When the movie makers resort to picking Tardar Sauce up and shaking her forchrissakes just to get her to move, you sorta feel sorry for the poor thing...until you realize she's probably got a mink-lined sleeping pillow at home (shake away!). Fortunately, we have the sardonic, smartassed vocal talents of one Aubrey Plaza (the excruciatingly mediocre Parks and Recreation) to paper over Tardar Sauce's somnambulant lack of personality. And what a treasure Ms. Plaza is here! After doing a little digging online, I came across an interview with Ms. Plaza, where she states she rewrote and ad-libbed 90% of her lines for Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever--a fact, if true, that scripters Hill and Morris should take every chance they can to note on their own resumes. Now, where to start with Ms. Plaza--that's she woefully unfunny, or that her brand of humor represents everything that's feeble and insipid and dead in American comedy pop culture today?
Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever didn't invent the notion of self-referential comedy (he didn't invent it, either, but check out Groucho breaking the fourth wall in Horse Feathers to see how it's done properly). However, Ms. Plaza's unrelenting, joyless employment of it in Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever (whether by Hill's and Morris' script or by her own febrile imagination), is a noteworthy new low in the self-satirizing mode. Anyone watching American comedy over the past few decades has seen comedians and writers increasingly relying on quoting cultural references as an easy shortcut to getting a laugh, with the purveyors of it believing that merely referencing some earlier achievement in the culture--and then snorting at it--is not only a more worthy creation than the original accomplishment, but also deserving of applause for how "smart" the referrer is for dredging it up (i.e.: a no-talent hack like Jimmy Fallon makes fun of one of the Bee Gees, and suddenly he's "smarter" than they are...as well as those who like the group). It's a childish, retrograde development in the culture, based on notions of elitism and exclusivity (and basic meanness), while showcasing a fundamental lack of achievement--"I can't genuinely create on that other person's level...so I'll destroy that person by making fun of them, while elevating myself up and past the original artist's level." That's part of Ms. Plaza's already-tired shtick, coupled with a phony "honest" self-deprecation that eventually stands for nothing (it rapidly becomes evident that she has to take this route--when she tries for straight jokes, she comes up with Noel Coward-worthy zingers like this: "Beautiful? On what planet? Planet Ugly?"). Plaza, her horribly annoying, deadpan voice larded with disaffected irony, constantly reminds us that Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever is a terrible movie, while laughing at us for continuing to watch it.
Of course this is all bullsh*t. Hill and Morris and Plaza don't really think Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever is terrible at all: in truth, they no doubt think it's terribly smart and hip and cool, in a deliberately campy way. After all: the highest level of achievement in their brand of humor is to flatly admit that what they're doing is terrible...and then just stand back and dare someone to call them on it. Just admitting and stating that their work is garbage automatically makes it cool...and cooler than you the viewer, because they said it first. They're only dressing down Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever as a final gag on us. Of course what they forget is that one can't sustain 90 minutes of telling the audience "you're stupid for liking this crap." At some point a piece of entertainment, no matter how lowly-pitched like Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever, has to stand for something. So constantly deadpanning "everything blows here" eventually achieves its unintended goal: the viewer agrees, and turns on the makers. Nihilism married to crass commercial huckstering isn't new, but Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever makes a valiant attempt at employing it in almost complete aesthetic totality, with the woeful result being a Christmas movie whose credo states that nothing is to be taken seriously, because nothing matters except one's knowing that nothing matters...and then snickering at that emptiness. Thanks for that elevating human moment, Santa and Grumpy Cat. Thank you, too, Tim Hill and Jeff Morris. And thank you, talented Ms. Plaza! But then again (cue trademarked Plaza eyeball roll)...f*ck it all, right?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.