St. Vincent (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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St. Vincent (2014)

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Vincent likes his whiskey, getting into too much trouble at the track, and napping on the floor with his cat.  One day, a group of movers under the employ of his new neighbor Maggie damage his car and fence.  In an unusual business arrangement, she pays him to watch her son Oliver to make up for the damages.  St. Vincent is about their relationship, and the way living a good life involves helping people on terms you might not understand.  Theodore Melfi wrote and directed the screenplay for St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher, and Naomi Watts.

Backyard dust stormYou see Bill Murray cast in a film, you come with it carrying a certain set of expectations.  In my relationship with his roles over the last couple of decades I have rarely laughed along with him.  Even when he's in an explicitly comic role his jokes are filled with a knowing sadness about the transient nature of all which is going on around him that dulls the punchline.  I smile along, not laughing, but recognizing whatever situation he finds himself in will work itself out in some way.

Imagine my surprise when the first glimpse we get of Vincent (Murray), growling away a vindictive story at a bar before finally getting responsibly tossed out.  There's no wry commentary with this Murray character, just a straight-shooter who has seen too much in life to let standard social conventions get in the way of accomplishing what he needs to accomplish at exactly that time and space.  He's the Murray id archetype let loose to grump around.  Instead of knowing the universe will do what it does, this Murray has no use for the phrase, "it is what it is."

Because what "it is" is almost always a refusal to deal with what's directly in front of you.  What's remarkable about St. Vincent is how it delves into the way Vincent tries to work through his problems, but does so with a cut the crap and give it to me straight approach which would have appealed to the late, and wonderful, Harvey Pekar.  As Pekar used to say, "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff," and while St. Vincent's fantastic ending might be a shade too far for a misanthrope like Pekar, it touches the bit of optimism I still have just fine.

St. Vincent seems a bit too quirky at first, but pain in this film comes with character growth and not an emotionally convenient soundtrack.

St. Vincent seems a bit too quirky at first, but pain in this film comes with character growth and not an emotionally convenient soundtrack.

So you might be tempted to write St. Vincent off because we know how the story is going to go.  Vincent's got a chip on his shoulder, meets a precocious kid and his mother - in this case Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) - chip eventually gets filed off and we all walk away with tears in our eyes.  Only part of that ends up true, and Vincent's chip is as firmly affixed to his body at the beginning as it is in the end.  What changes is our perception of Vincent, and how one person's idea of what it means to bring good into the world may not be another's.

Part of how St. Vincent avoids the too-sentimental trappings of a story like this is through the screenplay written by director Theodore Melfi.  One thing which I love about the story is that the relationships aren't forced sentimental bonds, but people brought together because of their economic needs.  Vincent needs money, Maggie's moving company damages his property, and she ends up paying him to watch her kid while she scrounges together the cash for his damages.  This kind of writing keeps the chip nice and jagged when we see what initially looks like Vincent's most important relationship is with a pregnant Russian hooker (Naomi Watts).  Can you think of a less romantic image than a pregnant hooker doing a dance at a strip club?  Here's the thing, it's not for me, but Vincent sees something good in her, she sees something good in him, and we get a sight of the unglamorous hooking and stripping business movies typically avoid.

Melfi's script keeps those edges jagged so even the stuff which might read too quirky comes off as charmingly observant.  My absolute favorite bits come from Brother Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd), who runs what might be the first Unitarian Universalist Catholic school in cinema.  Brother Geraghty reminds me of those stories you hear every so often about priests who have lost their faith but need the job, but Geraghty is played with more weary amusement that this once Catholic school holds room for atheist, Buddhist, Jewish, and Hindu students.  O'Dowd, himself quite anti-religious, brings a humorous pragmatism to his instruction about what virtues can be gleaned from the saints and provides some of the better scenes in the film.

Along with Whiplash, St. Vincent is another film which embraces the idea that some people may help each other grow even if it looks like miserable in the process.

Along with Whiplash, St. Vincent is another film which embraces the idea that some people may help each other grow even if it looks like miserable in the process.

But not the best scenes.  Those involve McCarthy who - in spite of her popularity - may be one of the most underappreciated actresses in Hollywood.  It's too easy to dismiss her as that crazy large woman despite the characters she plays in Bridesmaids and The Heat are completely different.  Here she just flat-out broke my heart.  From scene one you see the desperation in her eyes after witnessing what the movers did to Vincent's property that this may be the one time she can take control of something in her life, then the disappointment which comes when she finds she can't.  The emotional center of the film comes from a long monologue she gives which I wanted to get a screen grab of, but couldn't because no single image does it justice.  She talks about many things, but the moment she goes joking nervousness to complete sadness while talking about how, as an imaging nurse, she knows the patient's fate before they do and she's powerless to help I was in complete tears.

The writing is so strong in St. Vincent that I was struggling to keep up with some funny exchanges ("I'm showing him how the world works.  You work, you get paid, you drink.")  But with characters so rich I feel neglectful of just how good St. Vincent looks.  Cinematographer John Lindley embraces the idea of a dirty saint by giving Vincent a halo of dust and sunlight while seeing him in a Jesus Christ pose after a health crisis strikes.  Nothing sums up his holy dirtiness better than an early shot in a bar where Vincent, just trying to drink and spout some wisdom, is lit by a harsh bulb while everyone else is content to sit in the darkness.

Keeping the center of all of this is Murray who, in line with Vincent's pragmatism, is as surprised by the sentimental ending as I was expecting it.  Yet, it worked, and the fact is Vincent's doubt that someone would do anything so wonderful for him is what makes it work.  Vincent's rough, but who are we to judge how he lives his life when he really doesn't hurt anyone?  St. Vincent isn't about redeeming the man, but to ask what good we do, no matter how brusquely it's done.

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Tail - St VincentSt. Vincent (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Theodore Melfi.
Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher, and Naomi Watts.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Didn’t like this one as much. Didn’t hate it, either. Just felt like the ensemble were the only ones who helped save it. Good review Andrew.

    • Thanks for commenting all the same Dan. This is definitely a film where I understand if the schmaltzier factors overwhelm the cast, but the raw pain of the changes they go through helped sell it.

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