Clinton Moisey is a bowl-cut-sporting man-child who lives in his mother’s basement, whiling away the hours watching Who’s the Boss? reruns and designing action figures. He has no driver’s license, no job, and no gratitude for his mother’s kindness or for the shockingly generous patience he is shown by most people he encounters. As portrayed by Fran Kranz, he is unrelentingly obnoxious, speaking exclusively in a nasal whine and prone to fits of apoplexy over the smallest slights. As he tirelessly investigates the murder of his beloved cat, he comes off like Ace Ventura without the hilarity or a Judd Apatow protagonist without the charm and self-awareness.
After his cat Mouser is found dead in the street with an arrow sticking out of it, Clinton sets out to find the murderer. A mysterious flyer with Mouser’s photo on it leads him to Greta, an aspiring hairdresser (Nikki Reed) who, despite being about 25 years old, lives in a retirement home. The trail of clues winds through a local big-box store owned by Ford (a mustachioed Greg Kinnear), an oddball stockboy (Leonardo Nam, whose eccentric performance is definitely the highlight of the film), and a local sheriff (J.K. Simmons, who, in the wake of the adulation he is receiving for Whiplash, has no doubt already forgotten he made this movie) who is sleeping with Clinton’s mom (Blythe Danner, charming as always).
First-time director Gillian Greene situates the proceedings squarely in Indie Movie World, that kind of lightly stylized suburbia we’ve seen in dozens of low-budget features in the wake of Garden State. But she never really decides on how to play this material. It’s slightly offbeat but not really funny, and the mystery of the cat’s murder never generates any tension. The film is plotted like a mystery but with no real stakes and no real sympathies. Consequently, the whole thing just drags.
Even so, it might have produced a little low-key charm from its cute premise and otherwise enjoyable cast if not for the absolutely grating presence at the film’s center. Clinton unfortunately appears in nearly every scene of Murder of a Cat. Perhaps hardcore Whedonites may find something appealing about Kranz’s performance, but his whiny mugging performance is likely to turn off everyone else.
The screenplay, by sitcom writers Christian Magalhaes and Robert Snow, does nothing to help generate sympathy for Clinton. No movie should be obligated to make its protagonist likable, but we have to have some reason to care. Absurdly, Murder of a Cat expects us to root for Clinton. But why would we? He is petulant, immature, and — among the many terrible things he does in this film — he tells his mother’s boyfriend she has AIDS. The movie even has the gall to contrive a love interest for Clinton and then act like his main fault is a lack of confidence, a la Steve Carell in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. Sorry, but this guy is not some lovable loser; he’s a borderline sociopath. And a really irritating one at that.