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Review: St. Vincent (2014)

St. Vincent (2014)

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

Premise: A single mother and her son (Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher) move into a house neighbored by a curmudgeonly old man (Bill Murray). He mentors the boy while the mother is at work.

What Works: The formula of most stories posits a good and virtuous person against an adversary who is corrupt or evil. That Manichean view of life is a tempting one for storytellers because it invests the audience in the fate of the protagonist and creates clear moral stakes for the outcome of the conflict. The trouble is that most of life doesn’t come down to these kinds of simplistic binaries. In general, people aren’t simply good or bad although they may make choices that clearly fit into one category or another. St. Vincent is a unique movie because the filmmakers refuse to feed into this simplistic dualism. Instead, the movie is about goodness and it features characters who strive to do the right thing even while they stumble in the attempt. What the filmmakers recognize is that good people aren’t necessarily good all the time and have lapses in virtue. It’s that belief in the fundamental goodness of people that comes through in St. Vincent and the film is most distinguished by its performances. The title refers to Bill Murray’s character, and Murray does this role very well. He’s frequently played cynical characters but in St. Vincent his coarseness is matched with moments of sensitivity that are often understated. Murray is paired with Jaeden Lieberher as the neighbor boy and the young actor holds his own in his scenes with Murray. The revelation of St. Vincent is Melissa McCarthy as the newly single mother. McCarthy is known for playing loud and obnoxious characters but she dials it down here and has some genuine moments. What links these characters together is the way in which they try to do right in their lives. The characters sometimes come up short but it’s the struggle that defines them.

What Doesn’t: St. Vincent is a movie about a grouchy adult who begrudgingly befriends a young boy and the two of them become better people through their friendship. This is a familiar story formula seen in movies as varied as Up, About a Boy, Role Models, Gran Torino, Angels in the Outfield, and On Golden Pond. The filmmakers of St. Vincent follow the formula as seen in these and other movies but they add very little to it. The story lacks decisive moments in which the boy and his mentor do things that pivot their relationship. As most people will guess, their relationship hits a bump when it’s just short of achieving full blossom but all that is mended by a public display of kindness. The filmmakers stage these familiar plot beats with little or no effort to complicate or even slightly disguise what they are doing. When the movie gets to its finale it shrugs off any restraint and throws itself into sentimentality. Because the actors are so good in their parts and have rendered such authentic characters, the corniness is slightly softened. But the problem of the ending isn’t just that it opts for a hug. St. Vincent also suffers from lapses in its plotting. This is a very strange story because no one really accomplishes anything. For example, Melissa McCarthy’s character is going through a divorce and trying to hold onto custody of her son. When that issue is finally resolved nothing has really changed for anyone. Bill Murray’s character has a lot of problems, mostly financial, but by the ending few of his woes have actually been addressed. As a result the hug that ends the movie comes across as a sleight of hand trick by the filmmakers in which they resort to unearned emotional manipulation to give the audience an illusion of closure.

Bottom Line: St. Vincent is a movie that alternates genuine moments with scenes that are cliché and contrived. It is led by some strong performances and the actors generally overcome the weak portions of the storytelling.

Episode: #519 (November 23, 2014)