Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: "St. Vincent"

I think superior film acting is misunderstood – or, at least, often misidentified.

When we’re talking about adulation and awards, most of the attention tends to focus on “big” acting. That’s where the performers can display a whole lot of studied behavior and over-the-top emotion, or spew great dialogue at a furious clip. Think Denzel Washington in “Training Day” or Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

But some of the best cinematic acting is played close to the vest, using only subtle cues, and tends to get overshadowed by the more grandiose sort. Example: I remember watching “Awakenings” and everyone was raving about Robert De Niro’s tics and stammer. For me, the performance was emotionally vacant. Meanwhile, I thought Robin Williams was staggering, seeming to leak pain and loneliness out of his epidermis.

There are a few big moments to Bill Murray’s brilliant performance in “St. Vincent,” but what most struck me about the role was how brave and uncompromising it was. Most movies of this sort about cantankerous older men provide us a window to access his secretly cuddly soul. We feel the actor winking at us even as he parades the sturm and drang.

Not Murray. His Vincent McKenna is a man who is entirely true to himself, even if that truth is off-putting and abrasive. A drunk and a gambler, he doesn’t seem to have anything going on in his life beyond his decrepit Brooklyn house, his battered convertible Reliant K-car (complete with wood paneling) and playing the horses at Belmont Park – mostly poorly, which is why he’s perpetually strapped for cash, with a loan shark (Terrence Howard) circling.

Vin is a sour pill, and he knows it, embraces it, though he doesn’t necessarily delight in throwing his obnoxiousness in other people’s faces. Mostly, he’d just rather leave people alone, and have them return the favor.

This is perhaps the finest turn of Murray’s long career, and one certainly deserving of some attention from awards voters down the line.

The setup is that a newly single mom named Maggie (Mellissa McCarthy) moves in next door with her awkward young son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), and Vin is pushed by necessity/opportunity to form a relationship with the kid.

They don’t meet under the best of circumstances: her moving truck smashes up his place, and they exchange unpleasantries. On the first day at his new Catholic school, Oliver has his clothes, phone and keys stolen, and can’t get into his house. Maggie works long hours as a medical scanning technician, so an ad-hoc arrangement emerges in which Vin babysits Oliver for $12 an hour. She needs a helping hand, he needs the cash and the boy needs a friend.

The pair bond while going to the track, imparting wisdom about standing up to bullies (aka, how to break a nose) and other manly arts.

Most movies of this sort quickly teeter over into rank sentimentalism, with somebody like Vincent softening up like mush in the warm glow of a golden-hearted kid. But Vin more or less stays the same, while it’s Oliver who opens up and grows. This is not so much a story about an old crank who has a change of heart, but one who lets the world into his self-imposed cocoon long enough to discover the reason he got that way.

First-time writer/director Theodore Melfi elicits some terrific performances from his cast. Murray is bleak and brilliant. Lieberher is studious and inquisitive as Oliver, because that’s the kind of child he is. McCarthy is so genuine and wonderful as a struggling everyday woman that I’m willing to forgive her for starring in and co-writing “Tammy.”

Chris O’Dowd has a nice turn as a remarkably upbeat priest/teacher at Oliver’s school, and Naomi Watts supplies enviable comic relief as a pregnant Russian hooker who exchanges services, and something more, with Vin.

“St. Vincent” is one of my favorite films this year. It’s got a lot of hard edges, but treats its characters as believable people who, despite their problems and pain, possess an inherent grace.

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