I volunteered to write this review of Tom & Jerry for bad and cynical reasons. I had heard that it wasn’t very good, and I thought it might be easy and fun to write some jokes about it. When you’re a film writer who is deeply insecure about the considerable gaps in his film knowledge, and finds the prospect of trying to produce serious, thoughtful analysis of the art of cinema terribly intimidating and generally a bit of a hassle, you have to grab these little opportunities with two hands.
In my defence, I didn’t intend to just take pot shots at a subpar kids film. That would be a waste of time. I was genuinely intrigued going into Tom & Jerry, partially because I really like Rob Delaney and he’s in it, but mostly because the feedback I’d read suggested that, as a movie, Tom & Jerry wasn’t merely bad, but it was a unique, bewildering, spectacular failure. There is something absolutely admirable about unique, bewildering, spectacular failures.
To achieve that, you’ve taken risks. You’re not content with mediocrity. You had hopes, dreams, misguided passions. You are Icarus. Oh, Icarus. What a joy it is to watch you soar majestically into the sky, higher, higher! Getting a bit too high now, to be honest.. watch out for that all consuming ball of merciless heat in the sky, Icarus. Icarus?! Oh no. Icarus, your wings have caught fire and disintegrated into ash, and you have plummeted out of the sky, the sky has rejected you for your arrogance, and only the sea will take you now. You only have yourself to blame. But who can honestly say they wouldn’t do the same thing, if they ever were blessed with those wings themselves?
Anyway, Tom & Jerry isn’t even remotely comparable to Icarus from Greek myth. In fact, while I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s good, I don’t think it fails at all in what it’s trying to do. I think the reason reviewers have been left nonplussed by it is that it quite consciously doesn’t play to the traditional strengths of that zany cat and mouse duo.
There are plenty of anarchic, clever slapstick sequences, and they are, predictably, the most lively and enjoyable moments of the film. But those sequences are built into a story that actually has very little to do with Thomas and/or Gerald, and much more to do with Chloe Grace Moretz, Michael Pena and Colin Jost.
Moretz plays the lead role of Kayla, who bluffs her way into a job as a temp at a high end hotel by stealing an infinitely more qualified candidate’s resume. The hotel is about to host the wedding of Ben (Colin Jost), and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda), a generic high society ‘it’ couple. All needs to go smoothly, especially because the hotel’s assistant manager Terence (Michael Pena) is extremely suspicious of Kayla to begin with. But, oh crumbs! Tom and Jerry are both looking for places to stay in New York, and both separately decide to secretly set up camp inside the hotel. Can they coexist under the same roof? Can they heck!
Moretz’s Kayla ends up becoming the focus of the film to such an extent that it might as well be called ‘KAYLA: A Reckoning’ or something. On paper this is sensible enough, since Moretz is ordinarily pretty great in most things, but for some reason she plays Kayla in such a weirdly unlikeable way. She’s like Eleanor Shellstrop from The Good Place except with no sense of irony or self deprecation, as if the arc of her character was that she absolutely believed she was entitled to live The Good Place, and more or less all the other characters believed she did as well, and then she just lived there with a minimum of fuss.
Kayla saunters round the hotel, more or less not fucking up this job she’s massively underqualified for, despite her full knoweldge of the presence of an anthropomorphic cat and mouse combo treating most of the building as collateral damage in their ongoing attempts to merk each other. Rob Delaney is utterly neutered as the hotel’s owner, Henry Dubros. Casting one of the most likeable comedians of his generation to play a limp straight man, always appearing just as Moretz has narrowly avoided another calamity and complimenting her on her brilliance, is a strange decision indeed. It’s Michael Pena who brings most of the verve to the film as the fastidious Terrence, who is entirely correct in his suspicions that Kayla is a charlatan but is treated as a tedious busybody for believing so. Still, his hawkish distrust of her leads to glimmers of tension, and Pena and Moretz have some actual chemistry together, which helps.
Now, listen, I don’t want to sound like a square. I’m as fond as sticking it to the man as the next person, and I recognise the futility and ennui of a service job where you have to cater to the whims of the preening, young upper class. If Moretz played Kayla with some kind of eat the rich zeal I’d be right in her corner as she steals a living. But she doesn’t. She sort of just thinks she’s entitled to the job, and then, dismally, is repeatedly proven right.
She serves as a de facto marriage counsellor to Ben and Preeta and they both think she’s the fucking bees knees. Henry wants to promote her after about a week on the job. And through it all, there’s not much of a sense of jeopardy on Kayla’s part. She seems aware of the high wire act that she’s playing, and will occasionally acknowledge it by looking a bit bewildered as she tries to retrieve a wedding ring that a mouse has stolen, but she never projects any genuine sense of anxiety or dread.
But, for all this, it’s a kids film, y’know? And, particularly with all of this (gestures outside) going on, how much genuine anxiety and dread do children want in their film? Do they just want Chloe Grace Moretz, who claims to see her character as a “total goofball,” to portray goofballs (statistically, there’s a lot of us out there) in a comforting and sanitised way, as basically cool and successful and popular? Will the wafer-thin romantic drama that Ben and Preeta bring to the table be enough to satiate them, or do they want Marriage Story? Will they agree that the level of physical comedy and chaos that Tom and Jerry contribute is entirely adequate?
What director Tim Story and writer Kevin Costello have essentially done is incorporated Tom & Jerry into a bog standard but more or less effective generic children’s comedy drama. The jokes about TikTok seem like they would appeal more to baffled parents than kids and there’s a strange riff about the hotel employing Tom as part of a politically correct drive for cat representation, but other than that, there’s not much here that aspires to that magic formula of something that works on different but equally effective levels for kids and grown-ups alike. It’s just a diverting kids film. It’s too long for what it has to offer at an hour and forty minutes, but other than that, I could definitely see, say, my Close Female Associate’s younger cousin, who is the only child I know, being thoroughly entertained throughout the whole thing.
So, this whole review really is a bit of a waste of time, I’m afraid. In my defence, I also felt like Tom & Jerry was a waste of my time and had nothing to offer me, but then, it never pretended it would. I went into it wanting to dislike it, and I did, but it was your classic monkey’s paw situation. I didn’t dislike it because it was amusingly terrible, I disliked it because it absolutely was not for me at all.
If you are reading this and you’re eight years old, you’ll probably like this film, and also, brace yourself for all the suffering that life is going to bring you in the future. If you’re reading this and you’re 28 years old, Tom & Jerry won’t serve as a sufficient distraction from all the suffering life is currently bringing you.