Sunday, October 12, 2014

St. Vincent (***)

Written and Directed by Theodore Melfi


We've seen this movie before. A rascal curmudgeon finds humanity in the form of a small child. Paper Moon may be the definitive example. Bad Santa gave that movie a holiday twist. But it's been done, over and over. And yet, it's never been done with Bill Murray, and for St. Vincent, that seems to make all the difference. The film is the feature debut from Theodore Melfi, who also wrote the script. The film has a soft touch, sharp dialogue and knowledge of when to play for laughs and when to ask the audience to take it seriously. For a screenplay that can be a bit of a minefield with tone, Melfi shows an impressive alacrity to handle it. But more than anything, the film has Bill Murray, one of the more consistently wonderful screen presences that we have in the movies today. Murray's transition from legendary funnyman to accomplished film actor began with Rushmore in 1998 and was cemented with his Oscar-nominated performance in 2003's Lost in Translation. The man doesn't have range, but he can hold an audience in the palm of his hand. He is, at the age of 64, a movie star, but what makes that possible is his uncanny ability to pick the exact roles that work for him.

Here he plays Vincent McKenna, a grouchy Brooklynite with the accent to prove it. A Vietnam veteran, Vincent spends these days drinking heavily, betting on horse races and being an overall irascible figure. He lives with a cat and has scheduled weekly sex with a Russian prostitute named Daka (Naomi Watts) who has a very noticeable baby bump. He owes money to a local thug named Zucko (Terrence Howard), but he never seems to take his increasing debts too seriously. When a moving truck accidentally backs into a tree branch that then falls on top of his antique car, Vincent gets the most unflattering welcome from his new neighbors. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) is a single mother, recently divorced, who has moved her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), to Sheepshead Bay because she's recently gotten a very good job at the nearby hospital - and it also allows her to keep them both away from her philandering ex. Vincent takes one look at Maggie and Oliver and sees his worst nightmare. Not only have they ruined his tree and his car, but they actually have the gaul to be polite and civilized about it. It doesn't take much effort for Vincent to be totally dismissive of the both of them.

Oliver is a surprisingly thoughtful kid for his age, but arriving at his newest school is a bit of a culture shock. His class is led by an overly enthusiastic pastor named Brother Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd) who immediately asks him to lead the class in prayer. Oliver responds by saying that he thinks he might be Jewish. The class bully is quick to single him out and in his first gym class, Oliver's wallet, keys and cell phone are stolen. When Oliver finally does reach home without his keys, he only has Vincent to turn to for help. Vincent lets Oliver use his phone. Maggie asks Vincent to watch her son, though Vincent quickly asks for how much. It doesn't take long for Vincent to become Oliver's unofficial babysitter, and it's not much longer after that that Vincent realizes that he actually likes Oliver. He teaches the young boy how to fight, teaching him a palming technique to break someone's nose. He takes Oliver to the racetrack, where Oliver reveals a taste for odds and risk-taking. He even brings Oliver along to visit his wife, Sandy (Donna Mitchell), who lives in Sunnyside care facility, withering from dementia. Despite his planned flings with Daka, it's obvious Vincent's true love is still with Sandy, and he makes visits to see her often, even though she never recognizes him.

Vincent's trips to Sunnyside are the first glimpse that the film gives us of the softer side of the old crank, and the way Melfi chooses to reveal it is truly inspired. Looking at the objective facts, its sometimes difficult to reconcile the present crotchety version of Vincent that we're given, and the apparent noble man that he used to be. Murray paints this rough exterior so plainly and unapologetically. He doesn't need to be sorry for his actions, because he'd already spent all of his good deeds in the past. It's a tricky way to develop this character, and one that can fall pretty short if you do enough digging. But Melfi plays the right notes and keeps you from ever wanting to dig that far. It helps that Lieberher, playing opposite Murray, really gives a charming performance. Oliver is one of those intelligent oddities, so smart for his age that he might almost seem autistic, but Lieberher is great at allowing the good dialogue to speak for itself. McCarthy plays the straight role here, not her usual spot, but is able to rip off a few of the film's biggest laughs. It's the closest thing that comedienne has ever come to a dramatic role, at least that I've seen, but she still plays to her strengths. The role of Daka seems a bit cheap for an actress with the talent of Watts, and watching her on a stripper pole with a pregnant belly made me feel somewhat bad for her, but Watts deserves credit for playing the role all the way. It's the only way her performance would have been funny, and it very much is.

Melfi has cut his teeth on about a half-dozen short films before making St. Vincent and the skill shows. The film has cinematic identity, and is made with a formal discipline that's missing from too many first-time directors. But the biggest compliment that can be given to him is his treatment of the story. The script has some holes, and there are a lot of plot points that either make very little sense or get dropped midway without mention. And yet, Melfi knows to keep the audience watching what they really came to see. This movie probably does get more sentimental by its final act than it really has any business to, but it feels effective. This is a comedy, and a very funny one, but it comes from a deep emotional pain that Murray has made a career out of displaying with just a single look. This is one of the comedic actor's better turns, a role that doesn't require him to stretch but push those so-often-used muscles of sarcasm and melancholy. It's obvious that they have not atrophied.

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