The Optimists tells the story of Sam, a street performer with a unique outlook on life. Sam befriends two children who have led hard-knock lives and teaches them to look at life from a new perspective. The novelty of having a song and dance man as a friend soon turns into something much deeper, as Sam realizes that the children have just as much to teach him about life. Set amongst a wonderful London backdrop, Peter Sellers stars in one of his most charming and tender roles ever in The Optimists. Cinematography by Larry Pizer (Phantom of the Paradise, Isadora).
Spark of life movies, stories about aging adults who rediscover that zest for life, are a dime a dozen. Take an aging man or woman, toss in a younger adult to spur their hearts or a pair of kids to kick in the maternal instincts and you have the makings of a movie designed to tug at the heartstrings. Key to the success of any story of this sort is the casting of the central adult figure. Cast someone too likable, and the film can be schmaltz. Cast someone too unlikable, and you risk your audience not ever coming to like the lead. With Peter Sellers as the lovable curmudgeon, 1973's The Optimists from director Anthony Simmons finds the perfect lead for a film about hope in the face of unrelenting pessimism.
Sam (Peter Sellers) is a retired entertainer. He goes about his days busking the streets of London with his trained dog hoping for a couple pence to afford to keep himself afloat until he finds a new big time show - or he dies. When two impetuous children, Liz (Donna Mullane) and her kid brother Mark (John Chaffey), roam about London looking for an escape from their own dreary lives with two parents who couldn't give them the time of day, Liz and Mark discover Sam busking and the trio forms a pseudo-business relationship. The kids are able to bring in a few more coins and Sam trains them in the delicate arts of street entertainment. As Sam gets to know the children, he soon discovers there's more to life than waiting to die - you may as well enjoy it.
If there is to be a genuine criticism to be leveled against The Optimists, it's the built-in sense of predictability. You know where this movie going to go, but how it gets there is what counts. Through much of the run time allotted for The Optimists to build characters, their plights, and their believed paths for a better life there is an overwhelming sense of melancholy. At times this movie is just straight sad. There are little bursts of natural humor here and there but there is a constant reminder of mortality that can bring any amount of joy to a sudden halt. However, the film isn't all tears as there is still quite a bit of joy. As Liz and Mark navigate a complex world of adults we see the cracks form in Sam's hardened exterior as he opens up his life to these kids. It may not seem like much to most folks, but it's the world to these three characters.
The Optimists is best viewed as another in a long line of chameleon-like performances from Peter Sellers. The man could brilliantly switch from comedy to drama giving his portrayal of Sam a genuine sense of honesty and heart. As the kids get to know him, you want this Grinch's heart to grow. It's not Being There nor is it The Pink Panther. It's somewhere in between. And for as sad and dour as much of the film feels, you never regret coming along for the ride. It's a wonderfully charming little story that is well worth the time you give it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Optimists arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 discs, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing cover art for other Studio Classics releases. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation features.
With a 1.78:1 1080p transfer, The Optimists offers an incredibly rough presentation. Much like its central characters, the film has clearly seen better days. Details are middling at best as the film frequently looks soft or out of focus. Some daylight sequences look wonderful and richly detailed with vibrant colors, but those moments are few and relatively far between. Colors have a dreary faded quality that skews flesh tones towards the pale and sickly side of things. Speckling and mild scratches appear throughout but aren't totally intrusive. Black levels are soft and appear a more muddy brown than true black. That said, as the film progresses, the presentation does improve. Considering this wasn't a huge hit nor was it a catalog title burning to be released in HD, this isn't terrible. However, a fresh scan would have gone a long way to helping this one look better than its current state.
Worse for wear is the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix. With some bad muffling, like someone speaking into a pillow, the film's dialogue can be incredibly difficult to hear. Coupled with the thick London accents, you're going to constantly need to be adjusting the volume in order to make out what's being said during the early stretches of the film. Thankfully things improve as the film goes on, but there is a constant tinny quality to the audio. Sound effects are clunky and the score can be thick and impose at times. No notable pops or hiss are present making this a bit of a curiously frustrating audio mix. It honestly sounds like it hasn't been fixed up since the early days of VHS. You can just barely hear what's being said and having to constantly keep your thumb on the volume is an annoyance.
It's hard to feel optimistic about the characters found within The Optimists, but you can't help but wish them the best. It's a hard film with a lot of tough emotional interactions. Joy is sparse, but when it is on screen it's something to be cherished and the amazing performances from the lead cast make it worth the time. The Optimists arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Unfortunately, age hasn't been too kind to this film and both the Video and the Audio suffer from a lackluster presentation and are sorely in need of some restoration work. It's still watchable, but very flawed. If you're going to see this film, just keep the volume up and focus on the great work from Sellers. Worth a look.