(Photo: Alejandro Riera, Chicago International Film Festival)


50th Chicago International Film Festival: Festival Centerpiece special presentation

There is an unwritten list of actors and actresses that have an aura of talent, coolness, credibility, and respect that causes us, as the audience, to readily accept them in just about any type of role in any genre of film.  In the eyes of this writer, that list includes headliners like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and trickles down to include solid character actors like William H. Macy and Sam Rockwell.  Even if a movie they are in isn't a financial hit and/or an artistic high mark, those performers are always good and likely best part of the film.  They are never the problem with the given film.  They are a buoy that keeps it from completely sinking.

Bill Murray has become one of those guys on that list.  Just today, CNN columnist Todd Leopold outlined why Bill Murray is the greatest movie star in the world.  When you read the article, it’s hard to argue.  Move over George Clooney.  Bill Murray, at his age and at this end of his career reinvention as a serious actor over the last two decades, has reached the point where he is unarguably great in everything he touches, right down to silly cameos and web videos.  In his new film, “St. Vincent” his powers of talent and charm have merged and reached a new peak.

Murray plays Vincent, the new Brooklyn neighbor to an overworked and newly divorced single mother named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her impressionable son Oliver (talented newcomer Jaeden Lieberhar).  Vincent and his fat Persian cat live on a red-assed diet of sardines, classic rock, gambling, vengeful spite, liquor, selfishness, sarcasm, and Naomi Watt’s pregnant “lady of the night.”  After a bad first impression with each other, Maggie gets in a pinch and desperately asks Vincent if he could babysit Oliver after school.  Only getting paid to do it gets him to accept.

In spending afternoons and nights together, Oliver and Vincent get to know each other and the babysitting becomes a regular thing.  As Oliver becomes humorously exposed to Vincent’s world, the layers of incorrigible and hateful armor start to fall off of Vincent, the man.  Oliver learns what makes Vincent tick and starts to see the passions he carries inside underneath that gruff exterior.  Vincent’s mentoring also toughens the up the punching bag for bullies that Oliver constitutes.   Mentoring turns to mutual inspiration and you can see where the movie is going from there.

“St. Vincent” is extremely sentimental and conveniently sweet to the point of cinematic syrup, but so what.  Thanks to Bill Murray, it all becomes worth it.  Take Bill away and it fails.  First time feature writer/director Ted Melfi either wrote him an incredibly perfect part or Murray riffed the heck out of the content and squeezed every drop of character potential from a weak page.  Either way, it works and completely entertains.

When you step back and really look, the surrounding pieces in “St. Vincent” aren't really that great.  Oscar nominee Naomi Watts took a joke of a part and bad accent as the “hooker with the heart of gold” for an actress of her caliber.  Fellow Oscar nominee Terrance Howard is thrown in with an underwritten bit part as Vincent’s bookie and debt collector with little impact.  McCarthy hides in the sideline role as a mom and squelches her physical comedy forte.  Her “Bridesmaids” co-star Chris O’Dowd steals scenes as a mindfully cognizant Catholic school teacher for Oliver, but even that role is too easy.  All are naturally talented and entertaining to watch and it’s very admirable that these performers wanted to do something different and get involved.  Still, they all bow to Murray and owe him for this.

Simply put, in lesser or different hands at the wheel, “St. Vincent” would fall under its own corny weight.  We have seen the cantankerous, selfish old man loner bit before plenty of times.  It’s not new.  It’s a familiar archetype, thanks to the likes of Jack Nicholson, Jack Lemmon, Clint Eastwood, Carl from Disney/Pixar’s “Up,” and numerous other examples.  If Vincent had been played by someone broader like the late Robin Williams, we would have laughed it off as another “Patch Adams”-level fake heart-tugger.  With the coolest man on the planet in charge and with his acting ability in play, the movie earns our hearts rather than stealing it.

LESSON #1: DEAD IS THE OLDEST YOU CAN BEMurray lays into his fellow characters with a barrage of great one-liners all movie long aimed to piss people off.  This one takes the cake with the deadpan deliver and reaction of the kid when asked about his age.  His wisdom knows no bounds.  I could fill another whole page with these cut-downs.

LESSON #2: THE CATHOLIC RELIGION IS THE BEST RELIGION BECAUSE IT HAS THE MOST RULES—Good job, Catholics.  You win the award of thickest rule book, tallest shrines, and most callous acceptance rate.  Here's your skewer.  

LESSON #3: YOU CAN'T GET AHEAD IN THIS WORLD WITHOUT BEING HEARD-- The other half of Murray's one-liners are the character-building mantras he passes to young Oliver.  A general father-figure lesson could be used, but more specifics are available.  The one-liner making up this lesson is the best and it comes into play with Oliver.  The logic here is true that you have to have a voice in your own world and a say into how your life turns out.  You have to speak up and get your words out there, good or bad.

LESSON #4: THE DEFINITION OF A SAINT— To prove the innate corniness of where this story is going, little Oliver has a school project to find and report on a “saint living among us.”  You don’t need binoculars to see how that was going to turn out in the film.  Once again, sentimentality aside, the lesson on what makes a seemingly ordinary person saintly or saint-like is a good takeaway from "St. Vincent."  There are indeed seen and unseen people in this world that go above and beyond their means to help and sacrifice for others, especially a fictitious grumpy old man played by a former “Ghostbuster” with an excellent back story.