It seems an increasingly large fraction of YouTube is given over to cats-do-the-darnedest-things videos, yet our feline friends still lag behind dogs when it comes to bigger-screen tributes: Perhaps, as with most forms of human activity, cats simply regard cinema with too much bemused contempt to fully participate. While the wait for a feline “Old Yeller” continues, “A Street Cat Named Bob” amiably attempts to launch the counter-genre.
Drawn from the bestselling memoirs of British charity aide and former busker James Bowen, whose eponymous ginger tom supposedly hastened his recovery from homelessness and methadone addiction, Roger Spottiswoode’s film might be the most overtly dedicated man-and-his-cat movie since “Harry and Tonto.” Unpretentiously touching on the page, this material feels stretched a bit thin on film, with televisual production values and a samey song score doing little to enrich matters: Still, it’s sweetly hopeful (and, in its own parlance, “Catmassy”) enough to score in ancillary as a future holiday-season standby.
In theaters, opening Nov. 4 in the U.K. and two weeks later in the U.S., it remains to be seen whether the audience for this slightly unusual proposition — with an accomplished but still commercially untested lead in Luke Treadaway — will identify itself. The cosier family crowd that might otherwise queue up for a fur-lined, festive-themed heartwarmer may not necessarily expect sweat-drenched scenes of a junkie’s cold-turkey withdrawal in a council flat; on the other hand, even with “I, Daniel Blake” currently earning big at the U.K. box office, no one’s likely to mistake this slice of life below the British poverty line for social realism. Word of mouth should be favorable, however, beginning with the fans who made Bowen’s book an unlikely publishing phenomenon in over 30 languages — the film’s marketing hopes to lure them in with whimsical, not-wholly-accurate star billing for “Bob as Bob.” (Bowen’s presumably untrained cat appears to be one of several playing himself, but it’s the thought that counts.)
In any event, never mind which adorable, tawny-haired lummox is playing Bob — he’s a welcome addition after the film’s downbeat, somewhat sluggish opening reel, which introduces James (Treadaway) as a haggard-looking, stringy-haired ex-junkie sleeping rough on the rain-sodden streets of London’s Covent Garden. Checking in irregularly with his patience-personified addiction counselor Val (“Downton Abbey’s” ever-sympathetic Joanne Froggatt, given few notes to play), he mostly spends his days busking for stray pennies with sandpapery songs of woe. The real-life Bowen, like most London buskers, was a cover artist; the film, sporadically fashioning itself as a John Carney-style musical, opts for original compositions by Charlie Fink and Jonathan Spottiswoode. They certainly sound credibly like tunes you might overhear in a London underground station, which isn’t to say they’re terribly tuneful.
On his last chance following a critical relapse, James is moved into supported housing in North London, where two new acquaintances set him on a path to the light: The first, his cookie-cutter manic-hippie-dreamgirl neighbor Betty (Ruta Gedmintas, clad in a selection of kooky knitwear that knows no seasonal change), is rather less endearing than stray cat Bob, who enters James’s spartan, mold-caked apartment through an open window and decides, in the unswayably insistent manner of all felines, to stay. As cat adopts man — certainly more the case than vice versa — the initially bewildered James is surprised to find him a most lucrative mascot: It turns out that busy passersby are far more willing to stop and sponsor his sidewalk dirges when there’s a cute cat on hand to pet. James’s estranged, ashamed middle-class dad (Anthony Head), on the other hand, is a tougher nut to crack.
Complications of a rather repetitive nature ensue on our bedraggled hero’s quest for redemption and romance, but none severe enough to derail the film’s generally chipper mood and silver-lining outlook for long. Tim John and Maria Nation’s script pays lip service to the darker realities of destitution and substance abuse (notably in a faint, rather hastily resolved tragic subplot concerning one of James’ street brethren), but “Nil by Mouth” this most emphatically is not. (Native viewers may notice that James is put up in London’s De Beauvoir Estate, a council development notable for being islanded in what is now one of the capital’s most wealthily gentrified districts, but this is not a film of pointed social observations.) Spottiswoode — whose own career has veered wildly from “Turner & Hooch” (the clearest precedent for this on his CV) to the 007 outing “Tomorrow Never Dies” — sometimes struggles to keep the film’s competing tones in check, switching from James’s kitchen-sink angst to Bob’s jaunty mouse-hunt set-pieces from one scene to the next.
Cinematographer Peter Wunstore, for his part, attempts to negotiate the difference by occasionally switching to eccentrically angled cat’s-eye-view shooting — a cutesy gimmick the film itself tires of quite quickly, though it’s one of the few stylistic flourishes distinguishing this harmless time-passer from something that could as easily have premiered on the BBC one wintry Sunday evening. Even Treadaway, an often jaggedly off-kilter actor best known for originating the lead role in the transatlantic stage smash “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” is playing it affably safe here — he knows, as Bowen himself came to realize, that it’s kitty the crowds are coming to see.