British street musician James Bowen’s autobiographical book, a less-fluffy-than-it-sounds tale about how a stray orange tom cat saved his life, is translated into companion-animal drama A Street Cat Named Bob, a film that admirably tries to remain true to the slightly gritty spirit of its source material. Unfortunately, it also occasionally sprays the wall with maudlin touches and misjudged additions to the story.
When the producers decided to hire veteran Roger Spottiswoode, clearly his years spent directing the likes of Tomorrow Never Dies and And the Band Played On were less relevant than the fact that he has dog comedy Turner & Hooch on his résumé. A genuine affection for animals shines throughout, and it’s hard not to admire the way the production has bravely opted for the path of most resistance by wrangling real cats instead of using expensive visual effects to create digital kitties. Consequently, the seven assorted feline actors playing Bob (including the real Bob) don’t always look all that happy to be working for crunchies and strokes. Given the book was such a substantial international best-seller, Sony Pictures Releasing and other distributors should be able to bank on finding an audience for this. But viewers will need to be both cat lovers and up for enduring the less photogenic sight of someone going through severe methadone withdrawal, which could make this a tricky challenge for marketing departments.
Enjoying his biggest onscreen role since starring in David Mackenzie’s sweet but slight Tonight You’re Mine (aka You Instead), Luke Treadaway (who won numerous awards and plaudits for his work in the original London production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) grows his hair out to play protagonist James Bowen. Impersonating the real Bowen’s slightly nasal, semi-Australian accent, Treadaway projects an air of damaged fragility and skittishness, especially in the first part as the homeless James struggles to find makeshift shelter on the streets of London.
One night, James overdoses on heroin and wakes up in hospital. Drug counselor Val (Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt) helps him get on a methadone program to treat his addiction, and eventually Val and James’ patient, Ken Loach-film-style navigation of the system secures James a one-bedroom apartment where he can stay off the streets. To supplement his welfare check, he strums his battered guitar around in Covent Garden, a popular touristy neighborhood in central London. Given James’ penchant here for rather dreary ballads (penned for the film by musician Charlie Fink) instead of the surefire buskers’ songbook of Nirvana and Oasis covers, it’s no surprise he doesn’t make a lot of money.
At his new flat one evening, James finds a bedraggled ginger tabby stealing cereal in his kitchen. The cat decides to adopt James, especially after the latter spends what’s nearly his last few pounds buying medicine for an abscess on the street cat’s leg. Getting friendly with neighbor and sometime veterinarian’s assistant Betty (Ruta Gedmintas), a pastel-pink-haired specimen of the vegan pixie breed, James learns the ways of the cat and Betty helps to name their new friend Bob.
As readers of the book and those who came across the many YouTube videos of Bob and James will already know, Bob proves to be an extraordinarily calm, faithful and trainable cat. He follows James onto a bus one morning and won’t go home, and soon he’s on a cat harness to keep him safe, and spending his days happily sitting by James guitar case as his friend strums away, later learning how to travel by clinging to James’ shoulders and give a high-five (these stunts, according to the press notes, were mostly performed by the real Bob). Their daily takings soar, and while it’s not quite enough to keep Bob in sushi-grade tuna, their quality of life improves and they make many new friends, some played by familiar British characters like the lovely Ruth Sheen, who’s not in it nearly enough.
It’s perhaps understandable that screenwriters Tim John and Maria Nation and the filmmakers should feel the need to fill out James and Bob’s slim true-life story with extra emotional beats in the shape of James’ tentative romance with Betty and efforts to reconcile with his suburban English father Jack (Buffy the Vampire’s Anthony Head). However, the writing of these storylines is anemic and riddled with clichés, and leeches oxygen away from the most important relationship in the film: that between man and cat. Their bond is the story’s heartbeat, in both book and film, and what is especially honorable about the adaptation is that while it does try to show things literally from Bob’s point of view from time to time, it’s doesn’t over-anthropomorphize him or ascribe to him any mystical or magical powers. He’s just a very smart, particularly loving cat who — and this is the important bit — needs James to survive. It’s being needed that proves to be James’ salvation, the motivation he in turn needs to give up his dependency on methadone and all drugs.
The scenes where James goes through withdrawal don’t achieve Trainspotting levels or debasement, but Spottiswoode and Treadaway ensure there’s at least enough vomiting, shaking and — quelle horreur! – shouting at Bob to put any tweens in the audience off the idea of trying smack. That in itself is one of the good things about this film, along with its sympathetic portrait of the tribulations of homelessness; its plug for the pioneering publication The Big Issue, which homeless people sell around the U.K. as self-employed vendors; and its entirely right pro-cat, anti-dog philosophy.
Production companies: A Sony Pictures Releasing International and Stage 6 Films, Prescience Presentation in association with Altus Media (Eleven), The Exchange, of a Shooting Script Films Production
Cast: Luke Treadaway, Ruta Gedmintas, Joanne Froggatt, Anthony Head, Caroline Goodall, Darren Evans, Lorraine Ashbourne, Nadine Marshall, Nina Wadia, John Henshaw, Beth Goddard, Ruth Sheen, Sasha Dickens, Cleopatra Dickens, Franc Ashman, James Bowen
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Screenwriters: Tim John, Maria Nation, based on the books A Street Cat Named Bob and The World According to Bob by James Bowen
Producers: Adam Rolston
Executive producers: Damian Jones, Tim Smith, Paul Brett, Anders Erden, James Swarbrick, Brian O’Shea
Director of photography: Peter Wunstorf
Production designer: Antonia Lowe
Costume designer: Jo Thompson
Editor: Paul Tothill
Music: David Hirschfelder, Charlie Fink
Music supervisors: Mark Kirby, Tessa Harris
Visual effects supervising artist: Dom Thomson
Casting: Irene Lamb, Rebecca Wright
Sales: The Exchange
Not rated, 103 minutes