Monday, November 10, 2014

St. Vincent / *** (PG-13)

Vincent: Bill Murray
Oliver: Jaeden Lieberher
Maggie: Melissa McCarthy
Daka: Naomi Watts
Brother Geraghty: Chris O’Dowd
Zucko: Terrence Howard

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Running time: 102 min. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language).

Hollywood has done its best over the years to teach us that we need other people to point out our flaws and help us grow toward being better. There have been countless movies where some old curmudgeon has his heart chipped away by the innocence and beguiling purity of a child. The child in turn learns the ways of the world from the crotchety so-and-so and takes his first steps toward maturity. The latest entry into this time-tested formula is first time writer/director Theodore Melfi’s “St. Vincent”. The affable film casts Bill Murray in the role of the childish adult mentor and Jaeden Lieberher as the child forced to grow up due to the separation of his parents. Despite its formulaic nature, “St. Vincent” proves worthwhile with a cast that’s enjoyable to watch.

Murray does the most to elevate this otherwise middling dramadey with a performance that ranks among his best. His Vincent McKenna is a drunk and a gambler who doesn’t seem to have much love for other people. When a new single mom, played by Melissa McCarthy, moves in next door with her 12-year-old son, Oliver, Vincent is recruited as a baby sitter. While not an ideal sitter, he’s easily available during the mother’s long and unpredictable hospital work hours. Of course, she’s not aware that Vincent’s idea of after school care includes trips to the racetrack, dinner at the neighborhood bar, lessons on how to fight, and catching up with his prostitute “friend.”

Obviously, Vincent is a softer person than his exterior hints at. He truly does try to teach the boy some valuable lessons. He also cares for his wife, who is institutionalized with Alzheimer’s in a facility Vincent can hardly afford. Murray uses a good deal of his typical goofy charm in the role. He speaks with a very specific Brooklyn accent, and he handles the heavier lifting with just as much ease as the lighter moments. Be sure to watch the end credits where I’m pretty sure the director just said go ahead and be who you think this guy is when he’s alone. Murray is as unexpected as he’s ever been in his career, and it is a joy to watch him perform.

The boy witnesses Vincent’s life and has trouble navigating his own. He’s the new kid in a Catholic school, and he attracts some bullies early on. One teacher stands out as the down to Earth priest, played by Chris O’Dowd (“Bridemaids”). With Vincent’s unique input, the priest’s truly good influence and a mother that loves him, Oliver’s fate of growing up perfectly fine is assured, but that doesn’t keep the journey from being interesting and fun.

The movie never really takes too much risk in either its execution, nor its content. Vincent’s prostitute friend is never a threat to Oliver’s too innocent eyes. She’s the prototypical hooker with the heart of gold, and a belly full of baby. When a hooker is pregnant and played by Naomi Watts with a thick Russian accent, she never really seems too much like a hooker. Terrence Howard also appears as the racetrack’s muscle. Again, he’s never much of a threat. In fact, we never even see him get beyond the threat stage in dealing with Vincent, even though it is quite apparent that someone should’ve given Vincent a few extra joints by this point.

SPOILER WARNING! Now, Howard’s threat to make some of those extra joints is interrupted when Vincent suffers a stroke. As someone who has had a family member become victim to a stroke recently, I was a little disappointed by this section of the film. Stroke awareness is on the rise in this country as a massive ad campaign has embarked on making people more aware of the signs of stroke. Unfortunately, the stroke in this film feels like it’s a convenient point of catharsis for the characters. While it’s structurally sound to base many of the characters’ strengthening around this event, Vincent seems to recover far too easily from this setback. Stoke recovery is a long and grueling process, and while some strokes are much less severe than others, Vincent’s seems pretty severe at first and only a slight inconvenience later when the screenplay needs him to be more accessible.

Still, that is but a small part of the film and it serves to prove Murray’s strength as an actor. Murray is really the whole reason to see “St. Vincent” after all. He is the film’s barometric pressure. As he rises and falls, the rest of the cast ebbs and flows against him. McCarthy is more subdued than many might expect, yet it is appropriate not only for her character, but Murray’s as well. Vincent is the life force of this story. He gives Oliver his inspiration, and luckily not his bad habits. The film is named after Vincent after all.

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