In my review of Einstein’s God Model, I described myself as an agnostic skeptic – I’ll add cynic to the list. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. When people do bad things, my philosophy is that the underlying nature of the human race is deceitful, false, and hurtful, and I rarely get surprised. Conversely, when people do good things, I tend to want to know what their true motivations are. Like Holden Caulfield, I don’t put a lot of faith in most people. Having said that, I try to keep my cycnism in check – I like people, and I also believe that cynicism is a personal philosophy that, like others, could – and should – be self-challenged. This is how I choose to start a review of heartwarming British drama A Street Cat Named Bob?
I admit, the only reason I decided to watch this movie was because I thought the wife might like it. She’s an animal lover, especially of cats. We have two at the moment, and we’ve always had a feline presence at stately Hope Manor for as long as we’ve been married. I’d never even heard of the movie up until a couple of weeks ago when the name James Bowen popped up in a discussion I had with a friend back home. “’Ave yer seen that film about the guy with the cat? Based on a true story, it is!” After looking into it a little, and seeing the story behind the movie, and the good press it was getting, I secured a copy and watched it a couple of nights ago.
For those who don’t know the story, it’s about a homeless busker (a British term for musical street performer) currently enrolled in a methadone program to wean himself from his heroin addiction. The movie begins when he’s at his lowest ebb, digging in skips (“dumpsters” for you readers here in the colonies) for scraps of food and being refused a meal at a café because he’s 9p short. His sympathetic case worker manages to get him into a flat to save him from certain doom by living on the streets, and while he’s settling in, an outdoor cat enters his flat via an open window, and from that point on have an inseparable bond that inspires Bowen to finally get clean and move on with his life. Bowen has since become an inspiration figure, telling his tale to audiences worldwide, and his biographical tale, also called A Street Cat Named Bob, entered the New York Times bestseller list at no. 7 in 2013. Here’s some real footage of Bowen and Bob from 2011, before the fame.
The movie version stars Luke Treadaway, twin brother of Harry (Honeymoon, Penny Dreadful’s Victor Frankenstein), as Bowen, Joanne Froggat as his case worker, Ruta Gedmintas as blithe spirit neighbour Betty, and Anthony Heald in a small role as Bowen’s estranged father. Surprisingly, the movie was directed by Roger Spottiswode, who has directed both a Bond movie (Tomorrow Never Dies) AND a Schwarzenegger movie (The 6th Day) in the past – I say surprisingly because I was expecting a low budget indie effort, and this is absolutely not the case. I was also expecting a kid-friendly movie, the reason why I was initially sort of reluctant to watch it. The movie poster you saw at the top of the review looks exactly like any children’s movie about a guy with a pet cat. Bowen himself is depicted as a handsome young guy with a hip beard. Plus it’s snowing, so it must take place at Christmas! The only overdose in this movie would be from cuteness, I felt.
But again, this is not the case. A Street Cat Named Bob actually does cover the unglamourous life of a heroin addict, and his path to redemption. Though we’re not talking a scabrous, warts-and-all story of heroin use and life on the streets like Trainspotting. It tries to tell an uplifting story in a post-heroin life, to a wide audience, and I thought it succeeded quite well. Anyone who has been a homeless heroin addict, or anyone who knows the reality of that kind of existence, is likely to be offended by how lightly the material is treated – while Treadaway’s Bowen has it tough, it’s never depicted as the living hell it certainly is. When he digs for supper, or scrounges for money, the movie never feels wholly committed to the material. And though the movie doesn’t claim to present what it’s actually like to live this kind of life, the addiction-lite treatment sort of rankled me in the back of my mind.
That said, however, the less cynical part of me will play devil’s advocate and it’s not unreasonable to say that, rather than being a weak movie for adults about a heroin addict who gets a cat, it’s an all ages movie about a guy with a cat that explores the theme of redemption, and educates, in a way. The social stigma of drug addiction makes these people invisible to us. Our hearts become hardened when we look at signs asking for money or help. Instead of seeing an opportunity to make a life less miserable, we already have decided they’re only going to use the money for more drugs, or booze, or cigarettes. That’s mostly how I feel, and I bet most of you reading this feel the same. Drugs wreak havoc on lives, and as well as the physical toll they take, they destroy human potential. I sound anti-drug, but I’m not really. In a world where alcohol and nicotine are big business, I’m all for regulating other drugs. It’s impossible to legislate vices out of the human psyche, but they can be made less harmful than those produced in urban “labs” and cut with all kinds of poisonous dilutants. I’m pro-regulation of consumer drugs – it’s time to end the war on people, and prevent actual criminals from becoming milionaires. Right, speechifying done, back to the review.
Luke Treadaway gives a pretty great performance here. As Bowen, he’s in mostly every scene, and he cuts a likeable, sympathetic hero. You want him to succeed, not just because of his love for Bob, the cat, but because he’s a genuine guy, who genuinely wants to kick the habit and live his life. Gedmintas surprised me here – I’d never seen her before, but her character Betty is first presented as a two dimensional stereotype vegan hippie, but the story gives gradual depth and she puts in a nicely nuanced performance. Likewise with former Buffy The Vampire Slayer star Heald. As Bowen’s father, he’s initially just a dick, but that character too is allowed the luxury of a transformative scene, which he plays well. For whatever reason my mind did, and does, associate this movie with Love Actually, one of my favourite movies, but likely it’s because of the =SUM(”Likeable Characters”,”London”,”Christmas Setting”) formula. Yeah, I’m an Excel nerd, judge away.
But I mentioned I’m cynical, right? My main complaints with the movie are that the low points just don’t feel low enough. At multiple times in the second half of Act 2, I predicted how the act would end, but I was wrong each time. This section was ripe for that “all is lost” moment, but it doesn’t ever actually happen. The cynics among you might castigate me for looking for a “formula” moment in a screenplay, but if so, I’m guessing you’ve never actually learned the discipline.
And when the movie was over, one of the first things I did was to look online to see if this guy’s story was real, or if the whole thing was just a ploy to go viral and make a ton of money (which he has, by now). Other than what appears on the surface to be a deceptive crowdfunding effort to fund a cat-themed café, Bowen’s story seems to be on the level – although I did read that Bob was named so because the cat entered his flat while he was watching the boxed DVD set of Twin Peaks (this is not in the movie). How bad could his life actually have been if he had a telly and DVD player to kick back with, right? I’m kidding a little bit.