Sunday, November 2, 2014

Same Old Story: ST. VINCENT


Over at Forbes, Scott Mendelson wrote that St. Vincent, the new Bill Murray/Melissa McCarthy film, “could have been written in a quirky indie comedy Mad Libs book.” That’s precisely the reason why I was set to ignore it. I went to see it last weekend and paid good money to do so, but the experience left me completely empty. There are a few sweet touches to the performances, but I could barely hear them over the clunks and clanks of the plot machinery.

It’s a movie about a cranky old man (Murray) whose quiet life of sleeping, gambling, and drinking is interrupted by new neighbors, a single mom (McCarthy) and her precocious ten-year-old son (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) he reluctantly agrees to babysit after school. Reading that sentence, anyone who has seen any comedy-tinged indie-adjacent drama knows that Murray’s crusty exterior will soften enough to let his warm heart through, McCarthy’s harried mom will find a new support system, and the kid will learn life lessons from an unlikely source.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with telling familiar stories, but writer-director Theodore Melfi brings absolutely nothing to latch onto. It’s not even a tired story told with fresh perspective or confident familiarity. It’s just exactly what you think it’ll be every single step of the way. Like the Ancient Greek poet Hesiod said, “A bad neighbor is a misfortune, as much as a good one is a great blessing.” And sometimes you can find both in the same neighbor, especially if you have someone like Murray who can play up the sarcastic grump as well as the likable schlub with a tragic backstory.

The performances are all fine across the board, including the stacked supporting cast with the likes of Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, and Terrence Howard. They’re good, and Murray has his charming curmudgeon act down as perfectly as McCarthy has instant audience sympathy. Then there’s young Lieberher, who has the right amount of believable intelligence behind his eyes to sell even the most specious precocious moments. But the material is just not up to the level of the performers, who simply can’t make something out of nothing. It’s not that anything goes too terribly wrong with the film. But nothing was engaging or interesting, either. It’s agreeable, but empty, like Melfi’s obvious plot beats, simple sitcom staging, and bright cinematography.

I was all set to let St. Vincent pass uncommented upon by me, but the box office held up surprisingly well in its second week. It’s starting to smell like a modest performer, the kind of warm, undemanding, unsurprising movie that three weeks from now the guy in your office who almost never sees movies and doesn’t particularly like them anyway tells you he saw and wasn’t it something special? I suppose it is a totally competent version of this kind of movie. The performances are good and the final notes of redemption, complete with the typical big school event and a grown-up running in at the last second to show off misty eyes and a solemn nod of support, do ring with a certain earned pleasant feeling that can yank on audience heartstrings. But it’ll be far more entertaining the fewer movies you’ve seen.

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