Sunday, October 26, 2014

Day 323: St. Vincent

"I'm Catholic, which is the best of all the religions."
A funny thing happened on the way to respectability for Bill Murray. Though always recognized as the comedic genius he was, his early attempts to be taken seriously in films like Razor's Edge fell curiously flat. Once he teamed up with Wes Anderson for Rushmore, however, Murray finally began to get roles that deftly balanced his humor with his even more tremendous gift for pathos. As we entered the new millennium, Murray's Oscar-nominated turn in Lost in Translation marked a major step forward for him, giving him entrĂ©e into the world of seriously gifted actors. Then the trouble began. It started to seem like he just really wanted an Oscar, and began taking roles that were tailor made for him, which is a blessing and a curse for an actor. It's a blessing in that the material was more suited to his unique abilities, but a curse in that he just generally seemed to be playing the same guy in every movie. 
As we come to this point in 2014, he's already appeared in one maudlin, overwrought ensemble piece (The Monuments Men) after another (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and his latest film, St. Vincent, is sadly more of the same. In many ways, it's actually worse than those two movies, neither of which were anything to write home about in the first place. Murray's right in his zone, playing a cantankerous misanthrope on the verge of his golden years, but the material he's given to work with never rises above patented mediocrity. There's nary a beat, joke, set piece, or plot device in this film that hasn't been done better elsewhere. In fact, the film shares a ton of DNA with the infinitely better Bad Santa, a role that Murray famously turned down, leaving one to wonder if Murray just really wanted his chance at that role. 
I can't honestly think of any other reason he, or any of the other terrific comedic talent in this film, would appear in such calculating, formulaic nonsense as this. The film's extended opening sequence gives us far more information about the irascible title character than we need to understand who he is. The film's brilliant opening, where Murray's Vincent tells an off-color joke in a bar, would have been plenty enough evidence to fill in the blanks on this grouch, but as the opening titles roll, we're treated to an orgy of evidence that he's just not that nice of a guy.
The plot kicks into high gear when newly divorced single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door to Vincent with her ten-year old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). In only his second scene, Oliver is reading Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree with his mom, which they follow with a discussion on nature versus nurture. The precociousness is cranked up to the max immediately with this character, and though Lieberher is a talented young actor, his character is a gross stereotype that's just as offensive in this day and age as the--to borrow a phrase from Nathan Rabin--manic pixie dream girl. Hollywood, I don't need another wise beyond his years grade schooler who suffers torment at the hands of even more stereotypical bullies. I've seen that movie a hundred times or more, try on a new trope for size. 
Nevertheless, Oliver's new classmates are less than sympathetic to a sensitive young soul and steal his keys and wallet on his first day, leaving him to ask Vincent to use his phone to call his mother. Since Vincent is hard up for cash, and Maggie is in desperate need of a babysitter, the stage is now set for an unlikely mentor/mentee relationship in which the two will use the qualities the other lacks to bolster one another's confidence and life. Vincent teaches Oliver to stick up for himself, and Oliver proves an ace at picking winning horses at the racetrack, and so they bond to the dulcet tones of Jeff Tweedy in a montage you've already seen, quite literally, a dozen times before. 
The film wouldn't feel so offensive were it able to provide the audience with something, anything, they haven't already seen before. Vincent's insurmountable debt to a "don't make him have to get rough" bookie (Terrence Howard), coupled with his expensive dalliances with a pregnant stripper with a heart of gold (Naomi Watts), as well as the ever increasing bills he's behind on to keep a loved one in an assisted living facility, put him at such a disadvantage as a character that the film only bothers to wrap up one of those plot threads. Cast all of that aside for a moment and take a look at the subplot in which Oliver's kindly teacher (Chris O'Dowd) gives his class an assignment to find a person in their lives who embodies the qualities of a saint, and you're starting to get a sense of just how conventional this film truly is.
You're likely beginning to wonder if there's anything at all that's good about the film. Murray is always a joy to watch, particularly when let loose in a film, but this stock character does him no favors. It was nice to see Melissa McCarthy play a normal person that didn't have to suffer through an endless series of "fatty make a funny" jokes. Watts and O'Dowd also bring plenty of life to their roles, and Lieberher is better than the average child actor. Beyond that, I can't really think of any reason to recommend the film. 
In his first time out of the gate as a feature writer and director, Theodore Melfi proves that he brings nothing new to conventions that are as old as film itself. I referenced Bad Santa earlier, but you could go all the way back to Chaplin's The Kid to see this exact same story told more simply and with less rote dialogue. Audiences deserve better, and I can only hope that they see through this manipulative and seriously unfunny film.  
GO Rating: 1/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

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