Tardar Sauce

Every film suggests to its audience how it should be consumed. Some insist on being seen on the biggest screen possible, in a crowded theater filled to the brim with other enraptured viewers. Others are best ingested in the cozy comforts of home, isolated and contemplative, all the better to process the complex human emotions at play. Still others are so unforgiving, so psychologically trying, that the process alone leaves the viewer straining to hear the dialogue over the sound of the soul being crushed wholesale, bone and sinew wrenched apart at the joint. Such films necessitate frequent pauses for brief constitutionals and re-evaluation of personal priorities.

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Unfortunately for Lifetime and humanity, the network’s latest made-for-TV movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, falls into the last category.

Perhaps the holiday-themed romp was the natural endpoint for Lifetime’s 2014, the largest turd in its crap crown of original programming. The film is largely incoherent, but not in the sense that the audience is unable to follow along, because Grumpy Cat (voiced by Aubrey Plaza, whose lines are all pronounced correctly and at an acceptable volume) summarizes everything that’s happened so far upon return from each commercial break. Of which there are many.

The plot is laughably formulaic—so much so that the film literally references how formulaic it is, as though hanging a lantern on it will somehow mitigate the sheer laziness at work. A lonely little girl foils a dognapping plan and tries to save the day with the help of famed Internet-meme star Grumpy Cat, who only talks to the girl. It might be serviceable enough for a holiday film, but for the fact that much of this plot is dispensed with around the 45-minute mark of a 90-minute movie. In fact, at the 30-minute mark, Grumpy Cat remarks on how the plotline could play out simply, but the film will pursue a more languorous route to pull in more ad dollars.

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The ads, of course, are of vital importance because that’s how the network makes money, something the film makes continuous reference to. Also mentioned repeatedly are hopes for a sequel (twice) and mentions (with visual representations, no less) of all the Grumpy Cat merchandise available for sale (thrice). While Christmas can be an exceedingly capitalistic time of year, Worst Christmas doesn’t even try to address that, settling instead for what it sees as self-deprecation, when really, it’s just honesty. The people who made Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever don’t give a shit about quality. They phoned it in, told us they were phoning it in, and cackled all the way to the bank.

It doesn’t matter how bad the ratings for Worst Christmas are. From the amount of product placement throughout, be it Old Navy or The Children’s Place or Lenscrafters or Claire’s or the goddamn Chevy Camaro that the 12-year-old heroine drives, Lifetime already got its payday. The rest is just gravy.

It’s difficult to encapsulate just how erratic and tonally bizarre one TV movie can be. The best way to describe the film as a whole would be if Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Home Alone, Garfield, icanhascheezburger, product placement, commercial breaks, outdated cultural references, suburban community theater, and acid had a baby. Perhaps shockingly, then, it’s unclear who, exactly, the film’s audience is intended to be. While co-written and directed by Tim Hill, the writer of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and director of any number of children’s films, including Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties, Worst Christmas Ever has an unnecessarily dark streak running through its center, which suggests trying to appeal to those Internet denizens who view Grumpy Cat as some sort of misanthropic spirit animal.

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In one scene, the young heroine will shoot two hapless bad guys in the butt with a paintball gun in an outdoor goods store. The next moment will show one of the villains grabbing a very real bow and arrow and preparing to shoot her. Or take the scene where Grumpy Cat ponders what would happen if the pet shop where she lives closed down, an elaborate fantasy that ends with her being put down in a shelter. Have you talked to your child about animal euthanasia? Now’s your chance. Happy Christmas.

As painful as much of the film is to watch, there’s maybe nothing so unsettling about it as the use of its star, Tardar Sauce. Much of the film is shot in extreme close-up, the better to capture (non-)reaction shots from its stonefaced feline protagonist, while Plaza half-heartedly reports the cat’s inner monologue. In other scenes, when she is not expressly featured, you can sometimes see the cat curled up on a desk, tired.

She’s just a cat—a cat that people think they know the inner thoughts of, creating amusement at it being just like people. She’s dressed up and carried around throughout the film like an inanimate prop, and when she’s not being bounced around in front of a green screen, she rests on a cushion, occasionally not even lifting her head while the narrative swirls around her, paying no mind, like a stone overtaken by the stream. Tardar Sauce, or Grumpy Cat, is just a cat. She’s a creature that deserves better than crass commercialization and stark exploitation. She’s not the Internet’s property. She’s not Lifetime’s property. She’s not mean or sassy or snide. She’s a cat.

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But this movie doesn’t understand that Tardar Sauce is just a sweet, helpless cat any more than it understands that its audience is made up of actual human beings. The film mercilessly mocks other Lifetime films, people who like sentimental stories, people who aren’t popular, people who are popular, people in love, people who are single, people who are fat, children who are fat. People. All people. All creatures. All everything, until it’s all so cynical and twisted that when it features a child-molestation joke in the last five minutes, you don’t even flinch.

There was a way to make a Grumpy Cat special and create a new holiday classic, something that lasted the test of time. Maybe it entailed passing on the big payday and going with a 20-minute holiday special. Maybe it needed to be animated. Or maybe it just had to have a single spark of the warmth and humanity that made a small cat a viral sensation. But by mistaking a curmudgeon for a misanthrope, the film truly earned the title of Worst Christmas Ever.