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Phony ‘St. Vincent’ is Bill Murray’s Worst Choice Since ‘Garfield’

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 1.5/5.0
Rating: 1.5/5.0

CHICAGO – “Garfield, maybe” was the sole utterance of regret that iconic actor/prolific movie-golfer Bill Murray expressed in 2009’s “Zombieland” before he died. Should the adoration for this cameo resurrect him for that film’s announced sequel, Murray will hopefully denounce “St. Vincent,” his most needless and perverse career choice since vocally birthing “Garfield” (and yes, that includes getting a handjob as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 2012’s also terrible “Hyde Park on Hudson”).

Unpromising writer/director Ted Melfi’s “St. Vincent” is a film that is so ordinary with its story construction that its only substantial charm is indeed Murray’s casting. And yet, this selling point does not need a film like this to please a crowd, as he thrills people even by starring in numerous BS urban legends. Though this shiny film won’t go away any time soon, “St. Vincent” is best taken as another joke project from Murray, like when he publicly stated after “Zombieland” that he originally thought “Garfield” was a Coen brothers film.

Melfi scripts his second step into feature filmmaking with a checklist of audience-friendly entities, where even honest and kooky characters both feel like they’re derived from sinful cliches. Gamblin’ boozehound Vincent (Murray) is a Crotchety Old Man who spends his spare money recklessly, either into the pockets of bookies, or to have bed time with a Zany Prostitute named Daka (Naomi Watts, with an over-the-top Russian accent). He lives alone with his cat, rasping his way through acidic interactions with anyone in his path.

Vincent becomes an Unexpected Father Figure to a Neurotic Naive Pipsqueak named Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), whose Single Mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) needs a babysitter as she works weeknights. By fate that pleases neither Maggie nor Vincent, Vincent takes on the role of caretaker for Oliver. The Crotchety Old Man softens as he begins to share his life experience with Oliver, packaging wisdom as good ol’ values needed to shared with the next generation. In the film’s second act, Oliver’s Self-Effacing Teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) assigns Oliver with the duty of giving “St. Vincent” its feel-good moment/titular line presentation, and the young boy begins to research Vincent’s life so that he can canonize him for a school project.

Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Murray
Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Murray in ‘St. Vincent’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Murray nostalgia is a massive force that drives his version of Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” but it so visibly panders in the context of a filmography that has seen more sophisticated characters with less obvious transformation. By calling attention to the Murray Effect, “St. Vincent” only embarrasses itself. And by dressing himself up with a soul patch, squinty eyes, and a raspy voice, the film’s appeal coasts on a striking introduction which ends up being his performance’s sole grace.

In a mild dramatic exercise by McCarthy that is still a gift for this story, the comedic actress takes on the straight woman role as a person who can only repress the damage done to her by others, instead of fighting back against the world like Vincent does. She provides fragments of earnestness to a story that is losing its mind to banality elsewhere. In a way that made her role in “Identity Thief” a distinct smidgen different than how it may appear, McCarthy presents a vivid catharsis in the middle of the movie that is a success for her talents as an actress, but a shallow move from the film claiming that this story is more about people with her problems than it is Vincent.

Shamelessness is a characteristic that this movie bizarrely yearns to have as its foremost charm, with Melfi intent on having his film narrative recognized as gross science before an actual story; that this film is so assembled is meant to be one of its cute attributes. The problem is not in their simple presence, but the insincerity that defines their usage in this film. The very real stress of money is used in “St. Vincent” as a sucker punch of endearment; it is something no one has, and yet everyone needs. (For a depiction of this idea that has a soul, see the Dardennes brothers’ new film “Two Days, One Night,” which I screened at CIFF 2014 right before watching “St Vincent”). When it comes to the script following through on this anxiety, Melfi can’t penny up, as he treats the same element with aloofness. When the screenplay requires it, medical bills in the third act and intense bookies are suddenly not an issue. Money is a fashionable cause for “St. Vincent,” as if it can corrode its characters and still have the same lightness as the moment in which Oliver says the titular line.

Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts
Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts in ‘St. Vincent’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

In one of its diversions to posit Vincent as a complicated man with a soul, a reference to Vincent’s loved one is bungled with timing. It becomes unsure if a random visit to a woman is meant to be part of a twist that is later made clear on a second visit. Whatever its intent, the device is, like everything else, obvious, if not a Xerox from a beloved, better film. For whatever aspiration Melfi may have with these story elements, their cheapness create a toxicity in the air that infects the rest of the project. The ruthless formula precisely adds up, and eventually you’re not watching a film but a visual and audible antidepressant … and suddenly a character says the titular line right before a big scene of applause … and suddenly the idea of a filmmaker intentionally making a “crowd pleaser” becomes a frustrating query regarding what Melfi actually thinks about the crowd he is hoping to please. “St. Vincent” is disturbing most of all for its abuse of the vague term “crowd pleaser,” perpetuating the falsity that films that please diverse crowds can’t be new, and that a story’s simplicity is like a special gift to viewers.

There are little nuggets borne from the film’s performances that aren’t worth slugging through the phony “St. Vincent” to get to. Watts unleashes sophisticated comedic timing when she yells at a cat to not eat a sandwich, providing the movie its bizarre comedy that has artistic leeway rarely seen elsewhere in “St. Vincent.” McCarthy commands attention briefly when she erupts emotionally from the pressure that she experiences from her heavy single-mother responsibilities. And of course, there’s the moment that has already gone viral, when Murray sings Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” and it is one of the few scenes that feels like its characters, or its audience, isn’t being corralled. It is strange, it is sweet, it is laid back, and for some reason, Murray waters his sandal socks. It’s the one moment of honesty in “St. Vincent,” and it arrives at the end credits, after Melfi has stopped writing and directing.

“St. Vincent” opens in Chicago on October 17th. Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Murray, Naomi Watts, Melissa McCarthy, and Chris O’Dowd. Written and directed by Ted Melfi. Rated “PG-13”.

HollywoodChicago.com editor and staff writer Nick Allen

By NICK ALLEN
Editor & Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
nick@hollywoodchicago.com

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