Friday, October 24, 2014

St. Vincent: Quite a character

St. Vincent (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor, mature thematic content and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.24.14

Bill Murray gets more emotional complexity out of a dangling cigarette, than most actors could generate via three pages of dialogue.

Intending to teach an all-important work ethic to young Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), Vincent
(Bill Murray) orders the boy to mow the yard ... despite the fact that actual blades of grass
are long gone, leaving nothing but dirt and dust behind.
He fires on all cylinders in this cheerfully caustic dramedy from writer/director Theodore Melfi, as polished a feature debut as one could hope for. (While he also co-wrote and directed Winding Roads back in 1999, that never made it past the film festival circuit ... so it doesn’t really count.)

Murray’s sterling presence aside, this film also boasts the best curmudgeon/trusting little boy dynamic since Billy Bob Thornton terrorized young Brett Kelly, in Bad Santa. But this film’s Jaeden Lieberher is a much stronger actor ... in his first film role, no less.

Cranky old coots are a cinematic staple going all the way back to W.C. Fields, who quite notoriously admitted to liking children “if they’re properly cooked.” More recent examples include Jack Nicholson, in As Good As You Get, and Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino.

The hallmark of a truly sublime performance, however, comes with an actor’s ability to embrace and re-invent a timeworn cliché: to utterly own what once was a stereotype, and make it his own. Murray’s work here is just that sort of revelation.

His Vincent is a crusty, ill-kempt slob who occupies an equally dilapidated house in one of Brooklyn’s fading Sheepshead Bay side streets. An average afternoon involves several losses at the local racetrack, where quietly dangerous loan shark Zucko (Terrence Howard) warns about past-due debts, after which Vincent kills the rest of the day on a well-worn stool at a bar where everybody knows his name. And that he drinks too much.

Meals are an afterthought. The one treasure in Vincent’s life is his fluffy white cat, Felix, who definitely dines better than his master. Even after-hours sessions with his favorite stripper, a Russian “exotic dancer” named Daka (Naomi Watts), are more formality than pleasure; Vincent can’t even be bothered to stop smoking, or remove his clothes, while, ah, doing the nasty.

We’re somehow unsurprised to see that Daka is quite pregnant, not that this has slowed her strip club routines. Much. Yet. Watts has a great time with this feisty role, mangling the English language with straight-faced aplomb. Daka also is the only person who routinely stands up to Vincent, giving as good as she gets.

Even Vincent’s casual encounters are a riot, most notably when a long-suffering bank officer (Nate Corddry) attempts to clarify the intricacies of an expired draw-down home loan. This results in a huffy face-off with a bank teller (Greta Lee, in a deliciously deadpan cameo) who, with exaggerated patience, explains that one cannot close an account that currently displays a negative balance.

Vincent’s dead-end routine is rent asunder by the rather explosive arrival of Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a single mother fleeing her unfaithful ex, and now trying to start a new life with her 12-year-old son, Oliver (Lieberher). Vincent wants nothing to do with them; fate has other plans.

Oliver, small for his age, naturally becomes the target du jour at the private Catholic school where his class is led by Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), a wise, witty and rather progressive instructor who suggests that this new student begin his first day by leading the morning prayer.

“I think I’m Jewish,” Oliver nervously replies, whereupon Brother Geraghty graciously insists that this doesn’t matter, as their class is laden with children who identify themselves under all sorts of religious banners.

“But Catholicism is the best,” he insists, “because we have the most rules.”

Melfi’s script is laden with zingers like that, all of them delivered with sublime timing by Murray and the rest of this talented cast. Even Lieberher, serious and stoic to a fault, gets considerable mileage from his gracious manner and polite insistence on calling Vincent “Sir,” an honorific that inevitably elicits one of Murray’s signature sidelong glances.

Oliver hits Vincent’s radar after the boy’s disastrous first day at school, having run afoul of classroom bully Ocinski (Dario Barosso). With his possessions taken by force, Oliver lacks the means to be the afternoon latchkey kid his mother envisioned; Vincent thus becomes — with aggravated reluctance — a de facto babysitter. For a steady fee, which Maggie gratefully supplies.

At about this point, we begin to recognize that Vincent’s contemptuous bark is somewhat superficial. He professes no interest in other people, and yet never fails to ask about a person’s troubles: first Oliver, then his mother. Such overtures are made on his own terms, however; any semblance of kindness is squelched quickly beneath another bad-tempered tirade or disdainful jab.

It’s also a well-known fact that Murray has the best sneer in Hollywood, and he gets plenty of chances to exercise it here.

Vincent’s concept of child care gives this saga much of its bite, because of course he doesn’t alter his routine in the slightest. Thus, Oliver is treated to excursions to the track, the strip club and the aforementioned dive bar. Listening to the kid rationalize these visits to his mother, much later, is a stitch. (The racetrack supplies object lessons in math and economics, the boy insists, while the strip club demonstrates ... commerce.)

But Oliver also sees an entirely different side of his new mentor: an unexpected view that Vincent neither explains nor justifies. This emerges when Oliver tags along for an entirely different sort of outing: one that I’ll not explain — spoiler potential — except to mention that it grants Kimberly Quinn a warmly sympathetic role, as Ana.

We wonder where all this can lead; it’s only a matter of time before Maggie, despite working long hours as a hospital CT scan technician, gets wind of how Oliver spends his afternoons. Melfi quite cleverly plays with our expectations, and tosses in a few surprises: plot hiccups that take this story into unexpected — but still funny, and poignant — territory.

Although Murray clearly owns this film, his co-stars do their best to steal every scene. The nicest surprise is McCarthy, who delivers a calm, intelligent and entirely persuasive performance as Maggie. This character is leagues removed from the tediously shrill work for which the actress has become known, and the change is both a revelation and a blessed relief.

Although Maggie is a concerned, take-charge mother, she’s also an overwhelmed and overworked woman trying her best to make ends meet; McCarthy displays touching vulnerability at times.

Lieberher is too precious for words, his unyielding dignity and graciousness increasingly at odds with Oliver’s treatment by Vincent: a deliberate contrast, of course, which Melfi milks for constant laughter. But Oliver also is perceptive and wise beyond his years — the self-preservational response of a kid who comes from a broken home — and Lieberher also sells these facets of the boy’s endearing personality.

We’ve not been so immediately enchanted by a “cute kid” performance since Jonathan Lipnicki won our hearts and minds in Jerry Maguire.

O’Dowd is a hoot, his open-minded Brother Geraghty given to cheeky observations that are both shrewdly observant and wholly unexpected, for a fellow in his position. Lenny Venito makes the most of his brief appearance as Oliver’s gym coach, while Barosso displays unexpected depth as Oliver’s schoolyard nemesis.

Cinematographer John Lindley and production designer Inbal Weinberg make Vincent’s seedy haunts characters in their own right, and Theodore Shapiro augments the story’s tender moments with a quiet orchestral underscore. In terms of music, though, you’re much more likely to remember Melfi’s often ironic use of rock anthems such as Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law.”

And don’t leave your seats too quickly, once the story proper concludes; the closing credits unspool alongside Vincent’s drop-dead hilarious effort, while listening to a Walkman in his back yard, to sing along with Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.” This five-minute sequence is as brilliant a bit of improvisational magic as you’re ever likely to see.

Melfi’s story isn’t quite perfect. We’re left with eyebrow-raising questions regarding several financial issues; the estrangement between Maggie and her ex (Scott Adsit) also moves in a bewildering direction. But these minor issues don’t overshadow the inherent delight of Melfi’s film. It’s not easy to pull off this blend of comedy, pathos and sentiment without becoming cloying, but all concerned manage just fine.

Nicholson won an Oscar, back in the day, for his cranky Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. I’d love to see Murray walk home with the same prize, for his effervescent work here.

1 comment:

  1. Murray and the rest of the cast make it interesting, but the movie itself is so conventional and hokey at times, that there's a feeling something without a script would have suited everybody here just fine. Good review Derrick.