The following contains spoilers for St. Vincent. You have been warned.
Bill Murray is back on the big screen, and in a leading role for the first time in two years (Hyde Park on Hudson). He’s already showed up in supporting roles this year in capacities both somewhat surprising (a fighting art historian in The Monuments Men) and less so (a perennial Wes Anderson favorite, he’s not easily forgotten despite his limited screen time in The Grand Budapest Hotel). Now it’s leading the charge as a crotchety old neighbor in Ted Melfi’s St. Vincent. It’s a pity that we didn’t think to mine the comparisons to Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, but James Tisch and I found plenty to discuss with Mr. Murray, the movie’s plot, and more.
Tim: So we’ve both now seen St. Vincent, but we didn’t see it together and we haven’t had a chance to discuss initial impressions yet. I’m curious to get a baseline: what did you think of the movie?
James: I enjoyed the film for the most part, sometimes despite my better judgement. The script seemed all over the place with characters that all seemed to be in different movies, but there’s such a likeability to the actors and the performances that I found myself getting into it, even though I was fully aware I was being manipulated while watching.
Tim: Hmmm. I think I arrived at a similar conclusion, though only based on that, I think I liked the movie a little better than you did. You’re right, there’s so much going on, so many plotlines being woven through the movie. But even though some of those plotlines are lacking, the thing I’ll say in their defense is that they always seem to work in service to the macro-plot of Oliver (and the audience) learning about Vince. I didn’t think it was a great movie (like some in my screening apparently did) but I did like it. What did you think of Bill Murray?
James: Murray is pretty wonderful. He serves as a great anchor for the movie and helps disarm the movie of some of hokey, somewhat sugary trappings, as well as its predictability. Without his wonderfully wicked deadpan wit, St. Vincent probably would have been a slog.
Tim: I think Murray does a good job, but I do have a couple of things to bring up here. First, I don’t think Murray is stretching at all here. And he doesn’t really need to. Director Ted Melfi has said that when he first imagined the story, it was Bill Murray he imagined in the Vince role, almost even to the point that he envisioned the actor before the character, it sounds like. It felt like Murray was phoning it in a little, if only because there was nothing that required him to work any harder than that. Second, I flat did not like Vince as a person for most of the film. Not in that he’s a bad character, but the guy is such an ass!
James: I agree that Murray isn’t particularly stretching as a performer (this performance doesn’t come anywhere close to his great sad-sack in Lost in Translation), but I think he works perfectly well within his wheelhouse. It feels like an old-fashioned star vehicle role and fits Murray like a glove. I have quite a lot of problems with how the film presents (and ultimately redeems) Vince, but Murray makes a great grump. I think even when Vince is at his nastiest, Murray is such a gifted and charismatic performer that I never felt disconnected by his grumpiness.
Tim: I will say this for the guy (both character and actor), the scenes with his wife are some of the most touching and heartfelt of the whole film. In particular, there’s the bit where they’re sitting by the lake and he thinks for a moment she might be having a good day, might be remembering him, then those hopes are dashed.
James: That was a lovely moment and in some ways part of my problem with how Melfi scripts Vince as a character. The moments with his wife (who is suffering from Alzheimers) as well later in the film when Vince suffers a stroke seems to make the character a sort of modern day martyr – the whole thing just feels like overkill in order the sway audience sympathies. I think I would have been happier if he was just scripted as a jerk who gains clarity from his relationship with Oliver if that makes any sense.
Tim: I think you’re beginning to touch on my biggest problem with the movie – the tone. There are these sweeping dramatic moments, and on the whole, I think the movie really does want us to take it as a serious drama. Predictable though the story is, I can still roll with that. But then the movie also seems to be trying to tell jokes. And it’s not actually Bill Murray ad libbing lines or anything like that. There’s a part of the movie that sets out to be overtly comic, not just naturally funny based on its slightly odd characters.
James: Slightly odd? Naomi Watts plays a pregnant Russian prostitute! Melfi’s script is pretty schizophrenic. It changes on a dime seemingly from broad sitcom-ish jokes to pure melodrama. I think I get what Melfi is trying to do – I think he’s trying to find a sort of sweet spot like in some of James L. Brooks older films (Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets), mixing broad comedy with social issues, but it’s a rather strange, and sometimes very awkward melding here.
Tim: I want to push you on this a little, because to me, the root of at least some of what you’re talking about lies in the fact that there are so many subplots coming in and out. I have a problem with the tonal elements you’re talking about, but not the subplots, at least when taken as a whole.
James: It’s the number of subplots that bothered me. Aside from Vince’s dementia-ridden wife and his stroke, there’s just too much clutter. From the custody battle over Oliver, to Vince’s alcohol (and gambling) addictions, to Oliver’s bullying at school, there’s a lot of stuff in this movie. Nearly every scene invites another “big life” problem and I think the film likely would have been stronger had it deleted a few of them.
Tim: I see. Yes, that makes sense, and the script may have benefitted from some trimming. Because you do have plots (and I mentioned this in my review as the worst offender) like Vince’s gambling debts with the Terrence Howard character. That shows us how bad a person Vince is early on, maybe, but really it seems to exist as a catalyst for his stroke. Howard’s character disappears after the stroke. I guess what I mean to say is that despite all that, I think the film still works on a narrative level because the purpose of each subplot is to build up to the denouement of Oliver naming Vince a saint.
James: Howard’s character didn’t serve this movie at all. His three scenes could have been lifted entirely and the movie would function all the same. I’m not really sure I really buy the film that much on a narrative level, either – the build up to Vince’s sainthood seemed pretty programmed from the start (well, the movie is called St. Vincent), but instead it works on a primal emotional level because the performances are really charming. I found myself rolling my eyes a few times, then only to be taken off guard by a simple line reading by Murray or Melissa McCarthy or Jaeden Lieberher.
Tim: The only argument you’ll get from me there is that St. Vincent does feel (to me) like a very intentional film. I think Melfi has assembled his pieces pretty well the way he wanted to. So even though the story is predictable and the plot holes are many if you choose to nitpick, I maintain that it essentially works as intended. Which sort of brings me to the next thing I really wanted to ask you. I laughed at points, but there were (not a few) people in my screening who were cracking up through most of the movie. Was it the same for your screening?
James: My screening was fairly muted for the most part. There were a few stray laughs here and there (a couple coming from me – for instance, even though her character was absurd, I thought many of Naomi Watts’s line readings were really funny) and few audible sniffles during some of the more emotional scenes.
Tim: I liked Watts quite a bit, but I was surprisingly underwhelmed by Melissa McCarthy. I think she’s forced into it a little bit, having to be the straight character for the others (Oliver included) to always play against, but she did not do much for me here.
James: I thought the performance was alright. It was more restrained than we’ve seen before, but after the mania of Tammy, I was okay with it.
Tim: So one thing we haven’t really hit yet that really stuck out to me coming out of the movie was the sort of family attitude of the whole thing. On one level, of course, this is a movie about a boy, his mother, his adopted parental figure, and even his real father a little bit. But in part because of some of the simplicity to certain element we’ve already discussed, this feels a lot like a movie you’d take the kids to – except for all the swearing and some of the other scenes with prostitutes and such. It’s kinda weird.
James: Indeed, at its center, it’s a pretty sweet, family friendly type of film. For even though Vince is a brute throughout the entire movie, the film tells us from the start he’s really a sweet man underneath it all. Which may speak to St. Vincent’s deficiencies, but also to that fact that more than anything else, Melfi chose to make a movie with its heart on its sleeve.