Duffy the talking cat (voiced by Eric Roberts, yes, really) is a self-styled “human whisperer” who wanders from place to place bringing people closer together. In this instance he strolls into the life of Phil (Johnny Whitaker), a pudgy middle-aged sad-sack depressed over the failure of his once-thriving internet business. Hoping to make up for lost time, Phil struggles to reconnect with his teenage son, Chris (Justin Cone) who has problems of his own. It happens high school hottie Frannie (Alison Sieke) wants Chris to tutor her in English but the dumb kid fails to realise she likes him. Elsewhere, straight-A student Tina (Janis Peebles) wants to go to business school but is confined to the kitchen by her mom, Susan (Kristine DeBell) as she struggles to get her catering business off the ground. Tina takes out her frustration by getting snippy with her brother, Trent (Daniel Dannas) who is depressed because he does not know what he wants to do with his life. Sure enough, Duffy the talking cat solves all their problems whilst making a lot of sarcastic wisecracks.
Kids, there was a time when Eric Roberts was as big a star as his sister Julia Roberts and daughter Emma Roberts went on to be. Now he does voice-overs for talking cats. And not very well. For while Duffy has an altruistic agenda in bringing troubled souls together to solve their problems, Roberts makes him sound more like a world-weary assassin about to garotte someone. So inept it exudes an unearthly fascination, Duffy the Talking Cat was directed by prolific direct to video schlockmeister David DeCoteau under the presumably more family friendly pseudonym of Mary Crawford. DeCoteau unleashed the likes of Creepazoids (1987) and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama (1987) upon an unsuspecting world but more recently shifted into the family film market beginning with The Great Halloween Puppy Adventure (2012). Aside from Duffy, 2013 saw him release An Easter Bunny Puppy and A Talking Pony!?! featuring many of the same actors.
As a filmmaker DeCoteau specialises in cranking out product on budget in record time rather than bringing anything inventive or memorable to the game. Duffy shares the same dreary ambience and sub-sitcom production values that characterise much of DeCoteau’s output of late but does boast an undeniable theme exploring the anxieties of young people facing an uncertain future amidst the tough economic climate. Each of the young protagonists appear deflated and dejected over their inability to move forward in life while the film seems to hold up sad, lonely Phil as some sort of cautionary example. Tina and Trent are so frustrated by their lot in life they constantly snipe at one another in tiresome fashion while Chris is so tightly-wound he fails to realise Franny is flirting with him until Duffy sets him straight. Eventually Duffy boosts everyone’s conference with a few choice words that, frankly, aren’t that inspirational. He does not actually do anything useful beyond glower at the humans and offer the odd sarcastic remark. Obviously the sound of Eric Roberts’ gravel voice emanating from a cute kitty takes everyone by surprise although for some reason Duffy can only talk once with each particular person. “I don’t make the rules”, he rasps by way of an explanation.
Some have described Duffy the Talking Cat as the family film equivalent of The Room (2003), possibly because its curious combination of ineptitude, surrealism and pretension is strangely compelling for reasons impossible to explain. DeCoteau pads the slight running time with repeated exterior shots of the beach or a lake or the woods that have nothing to do with the action such as it is. Veterans Johnny Whitaker and Kristine DeBell, who starred with Jackie Chan in his first American feature The Big Brawl (1980) along with Meatballs (1979) and Alice in Wonderland: An X Rated Fantasy (1976), appear bemused by the sheer inanity of what is going on while the young newcomers are endearingly enthusiastic. The screenplay by Andrew Helm draws various sub-plots together in an incredibly goofy but satisfying manner. Late in the day the film makes a corny bid for pathos that would be far more affecting had Duffy’s injuries been convincing in any way. He’s no Cat from Outer Space, that’s for sure.