Friday, October 24, 2014

Bill Murray Brings The Mirth To The Likable Throwaway ST. VINCENT

Now playing at both art houses and multiplexes:

ST. VINCENT (Dir. Theodore Melfi, 2014)

Bill Murray’s Vincent MacKenna is the latest in a long line of lovable losers that the actor has portrayed stretching back to his time as a Not Ready For Prime Time Player on Saturday Night Live in the ‘70s. 

Vincent, a schlubby Brooklynite, is a boozing, gambling, politically incorrect curmudgeon, with an Irish-tinged accent who regularly sleeps with a pregnant prostitute, played by Naomi Watts. The character is a bit older than Murray himself – by 4 years, enough to make him a Vietnam vet, which we see in fleeting glimpses of old photos that look like repurposed stills from STRIPES.

The film, which is a bit schlubby itself, concerns Murray befriending his 12-year old neighbor, played by the predictably precocious yet still winsome Jaeden Lieberher. The kid’s mother, a much more subdued than usual Melissa McCarthy, is recently divorced and overworked as a hospital tech so she hires Murray to look after her son. This is indeed a very questionable decision, but what’s a stressed-out single mother in an indie comedy to do?

Of course, Murray teaches the nerdy Lieberher how to fight, takes him along on his daily trips to the race track, and favorite bar and strip club, while they form an unlikely bond. However, in the overly familiar world of this movie, it’s a completely likely bond.

Writer/director Theodore Melfi in his feature length film debut is working very much in the vein of ABOUT A BOY, BAD SANTA, BAD GRANDPA, GRAND TORINO, and even UP – you know, movies in which a curmudgeon finds redemption via a relationship with a needy kid.

That’s not to say that ST. VINCENT isn’t an entertaining and likable experience. It’s great to see Murray in a much juicier starring role than his last lead (in 2012’s HYDE PARK ON THE HUDSON), and his tossed off delivery of such lines as “call a plumber” when Watts tells him her water broke is consistently amusing.

Lieberher’s career as a child actor is off to a good start here as he works well and has a good believable chemistry with Murray and McCarthy. It’s great as well to see McCarthy playing a reasonable, real person and not another over-the-top comic concoction (*cough* TAMMY).

Watts’ Russian hooker character is initially pretty broad, but gets more and more depth as the film goes on. Her accent isn’t very convincing, but since Murray’s accent itself slips in several instances, it’s not really an issue.

The rest of the supporting cast is well chosen, especially Chris O’Dowd as a deadpan Catholic school teacher, and a subtly menacing Terrence Howard as Murray’s bookie. 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit also appears as McCarthy’s ex-husband, but I don’t recall if he even said anything significant.

ST. VINCENT’s soundtrack is cool too. Two catchy songs, “Everyone Hides,” and “Why Why Why,” by Wilco founder/front man Jeff Tweedy’s solo project Tweedy are prominently featured, along with apt tracks by Jefferson Airplane, The Webs, and The National. One of the film’s highlights has Murray singing along to the Bob Dylan classic “Shelter From the Storm” while tending to his yard, but not in a Nick the Lounge Singer way at all.

Millennials may think of the art rock musician, St. Vincent (who headlined the Hopscotch festival here in Raleigh last September), but the title refers to the premise of Lieberher being assigned a school project about modern saints in which he picks Murray’s Vincent to profile. This involves a very standard ending involving Murray getting applause by a packed church after the build up by quite a snazzy power-point presentation Lieberher somehow put together.

There’s an article in the latest Rolling Stone about how cool Murray is because he’s so beloved that he can get away with almost anything. And yeah, it does look like the man is living it up from the reports of party crashing, photo bombing, and other assorted shenanigans I seem to hear about daily, so much so that his film career feels secondary to his life just “Being Bill Murray” (the title of Gavin Edward’s RS piece).

So a film like this is a fine albeit formulaic showcase for Murray, but it’s nowhere near a great movie. It’s a likable throwaway best for a matinee. The late, great movie critic Gene Siskel often said when evaluating movies: “I ask myself if I would enjoy myself more watching a documentary of the same actors having dinner.”

The answer for ST. VINCENT in that regard is definitely that a documentary of Murray and his co-stars dining would be much better than this. A documentary about following Murray around for a while, a week, a month, a year, whatever, would also blow this away I bet. Somebody should get on that.

More later...

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