I'm a sucker for Peter Sellers as well as movies that center around dogs, so I'm easy to please here. That said, in both title and by being classified as a comedy, "The Optimists" is a bit off. Yes, it stars Sellers and a couple of likeably scruffy kids, but the story is one of only light humor and much sadness amid a downscale London district bordering the Thames called Nine Elms.
Nine Elms, as a lonely young girl named Liz (Donna Mullane) explains in the beginning, "didn't mean trees, it meant foggy winter, the noise of trains. But most of all, it meant Sam, the first to show us the world on the other side of the river."
Sam, played by Sellers, is a street performer, or "busker," who like his faithful dog Bella is getting on in years but still plugging away singing for loose change at soccer games. Liz and her little brother Mark (John Chaffey) initially tease Sam, but come to befriend him and Bella. Sam in turn indeed takes them across the river to help him in his street act, teach them some songs, and talk about life, death and the wonderland that's one's own imagination.
"It's magic, it's private, it's yours," he says of the last thing.
"It's not!" Liz counters.
"I told you that's a rude word," Sam tells her. "Use a handkerchief."
Sellers supposedly channeled memories of his father, a music-hall performer, in the character of Sam. He's charming company, tipping his battered hat and introducing songs like "No Matter How Long Your Stockings Are, The Tops Are Always Nearest To The Bottom." His interaction with Mullane and Chaffey is quite winning in a natural, unaffected way, chippy at first ("Don't annoy the dog, son, she'll pee all over you!"), then gradually warming into believable affection.
A problem with "Optimists" is the absence of any real story. Liz's concern with the world across the river stems from the fact there are nicer apartments there for her family to live in if they can get accepted by the right building council. Mark just wants a dog of his own. Later in the story, there is a crisis involving the getting and keeping of this second dog, as well as how the relationship between Sam and the kids is interpreted by their gruff-but-decent father. None of this adds up to riveting cinema, and "Optimists" sort of runs on like the river that forms its most memorable backdrop.
Amble as it does, "Optimists" has an engaging quality to it. Director Anthony Simmons, both the writer of the source novel and co-writer (with Tudor Gates) of the script, finds the right balance of image and pace. The musical score by George Martin, with songs by Lionel Bart, accentuates both Sam's music-hall heritage and his budding friendship with Liz and Mark. The cinematography by Larry Pizer is stark but beautiful, much of it centering around the environs of Battersea Power Station which will be quite familiar to Pink Floyd fans.
There are no stirring setpieces in "Optimists," but a lot of nice little moments that stand out when you see them, like another busker with trained budgies or an old woman glimpsed staring out the window at the children playing outside.
Twee and manipulative as it sometimes is, "Optimists" scores with a solid Sellers performance in the middle of his dry early-1970s period as well as a quality of battered hopefulness that sticks with you. If it had been more sharply written, it could have been a classic, but as it is it stands up as a character study and leaves a warm impression.