St. Vincent

St VincentI had always imagined that Bill Murray could be entertaining even if he was just watering a plant. His new film St. Vincent ultimately confirms my assumption but not before offering one of the most satisfying experiences at the movies this year.

St. Vincent is the story of Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray), a selfish, filthy, cranky curmudgeon of a guy living alone in his Brooklyn home. However when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vince’s deliberately isolated existence is suddenly shattered. With Maggie’s job as a CAT scan tech requiring late hours, she must, in an act of desperation, lean on the dissolute Vincent to watch Oliver after school. Oliver’s new school is a religious prep academy that is uncharacteristically non-denominational. And while the school is universally accepting, the students are less so making it hard for Oliver to make friends even with Brother Geraghty’s (Chris O’Dowd) lessons about sainthood and brotherly love. Thus, Oliver looks to Vincent for guidance, and what follows is a well-executed, though familiar, tale of unlikely friendship. Think Up with most of the “Disney” rinsed off.

Selfish adults paired up with circumstantially victimized children is a staple of American cinema, and that fact could have easily stacked the odds against St. Vincent; however, the charm, heart, and most of all performances in this film prevent it from falling victim to the clichés and mediocrity that this genre is capable of producing. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi’s screenplay does not meander or wander away from its strengths, the principal of which is Murray. Murray’s turn as the crotchety Vincent is as fine a performance as he’s ever delivered and certainly the most sentimental. Yet, the film earns every laugh and every tear without setting foot into melodramatic or schmaltzy territory. While the screenplay does enjoy the occasional shortcut or coincidental predictableness, the larger motif about the existence of unconventional goodness in the world is quite successful. Newcomer Lieberher’s performance as Oliver is also very good allowing Murray’s character to feel that much more dynamic. McCarthy is great opposite Murray and Naomi Watts is surprisingly well cast as Vincent’s lady (of the night) friend, Daka.

St. Vincent is less a comedy than the trailers would have you believe. While occasionally funny, this film tugs at the heartstrings as hard as any drama ever dares. Still, genre-based confusion aside, the film works and delivers on a wide range of emotions that may help get Murray his first Oscar. A-

St. Vincent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. And if you want to see what I mean about Bill Murray being entertaining while watering a plant, click here or just sit through the film’s credits.

The Heat

ImageThe Heat proves two things: the ‘buddy cop’ genre actually survived Kevin Smith’s Copout and Melissa McCarthy can produce laughs like no one else in the business!  Normally, when a film’s release date is delayed by a studio, it is a bad thing.  However, when 20th Century Fox moved the release of The Heat from an April release to a June release, it is clear they knew they had a hit on their hands that could measure up against the big summer blockbusters.

The basic story involves an uptight FBI agent being paired up with a course Boston police officer in order to take down a drug lord.  Nothing spectacular plot-wise.   Thus, the golden rule for buddy cop movies is “do something to make it better than the last one.”  There are literally thousands of films that use the odd couple cop partnership blueprint, so the only way to ensure success is to continually add improvements.  It goes without saying that hyper-focused “by the book” FBI agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and passionate yet “devil may care” detective Mullins (McCarthy) will eventually overcome their initial confrontation and become an effective team.  Thus, to overcome the clichés inherent in the genre, director Paul Feig capitalized on Katie Dippold’s screenplay by emphasizing the episodic storyline and injecting a bit of dark humor, which also allowed his previous film, Bridesmaids, to work so well. 

The film opens by introducing Bullock’s character as one who does a good job, but with an arrogance that alienates everyone she works with.  Thus, when an opportunity for a promotion arrives, she takes a job where she will work along side the Boston police department and prove to her superiors that she can work well with others.  What she clearly was not expecting is that she would be partnered up with her foil: a foul-mouthed, uncivilized cop, who while rude and vulgar, is also great at her job.  This pairing allows Feig to guide his perfectly casted characters through a series of hilarious episodes where two good cops try to understand why the other’s methods work.  Where Ashburn sucks up to her boss for fulfillment, Mullins bullies and ridicules hers for the very same reason in one of the film’s funniest scenes.  Recollections of Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run or Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, and John Ashton in Beverly Hills Cop are hard to deny, but never blatantly ripped-off. 

As mentioned earlier, The Heat strives for being more than a series of gags like McCarthy’s earlier 2013 effort, The Identity Thief.  The Heat is far more violent and crude than some may expect.  However, considering the golden rule, why shouldn’t it be?  We’ve already seen Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock learns how to let her hair down.  Now it’s time for her to raid a hidden arsenal in a refrigerator, suit up, and crack some skulls.  The real element of danger, violence, and peril allows the film to outlast its premise not unlike This is the End from earlier this summer where the film’s balance of comedy and disaster made it that much better.  It’s fun to see films mix genres, and this is no exception.  The film moves swiftly and has plenty of strong laughs as well as cringe worthy thrills that may even make you avert your eyes.   

If there’s anything to criticize here, it is that these female characters basically resemble the classic unpolished lifestyles of a million other male counterparts.  The film could have elevated the female buddy cop genre by giving them more girl-power.  An opportunity is missed by downplaying the relationship between Ashburn and her FBI contact, Levy (Marlon Wayans), and Mullins’s romantic life is played off as one big joke because of course, how can such a big woman have a real love life?  Feig was much more successful at developing the relationships among women in Bridesmaids than he is here.  Nonetheless, the film is not offensive towards women and is still very funny.  B+

The Heat is rated R and has the surprisingly long running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.  However, it never feels overly long or dull. 

This is 40

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Judd Apatow has found his cinematic niche in watching outsiders become insiders.  The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People all examine likable, but slightly introverted, man-children.  Each of these films attempts to show that the geeky child in all of us doesn’t have to go away, but it has to grow up a little bit.  Apatow’s latest film, This is 40 is a departure from this philosophy and unfortunately, it suffers for it.  This is 40 feels like an anti-Apatow film in that now we are watching dull, angry insiders desperately pining away for the days when they were outsiders.

This is 40 is marketed as the “sort of” sequel to Knocked Up.  This is because it focuses on married couple Debbie and Pete, peripheral characters from that film.  It is fair to call this a personal film for Apatow since Debbie is once again played by Apatow’s real wife Leslie Mann, and her two kids, Charlotte and Sadie, are played by his actual daughters.  Pete is reprised by Paul Rudd, which has to create some excellent awkward moments on the set as Rudd is directed by Apatow to essentially ‘be’ Apatow alongside his entire family.  Other than these characters, and a couple other very minor ones, this film certainly deserves the “sort of” moniker that it gets since it takes a completely different tone than Knocked Up and leaves behind virtually everything that made that movie work.    

We drop in on Debbie and Pete five years after Knocked Up, and things are not good.  The characters are facing their 40th birthdays and you’d think it’s the end of the world.  Apatow has stripped his characters of their geek-child, and what is left is sad adults, angry kids, and a lot of yelling.  It does not matter what your experience is with 40 or teenagers, this film uncomfortable viewing to say the least.    

There is not much fun to be found in This is 40.  Judd Apatow has always found some stronghold of critical praise in that he is given credit for being ‘honest.’  Basically, many critics say his comedies get away with being raunchy and crass because they are ‘honest.’  Actually, his comedies get away with being raunchy and crass because they are funny and filled with fun, and yes honestly realistic, characters, but that is not the case in This is 40.  Whether or not one can relate to the problems of the characters, this is not an enjoyable movie.  Problems are unrealistically piled on, Debbie’s father (John Lithgow) is nothing more than a caricature whose lines are unintentionally laughable, and the movie is plotless but not in an artistic way.  Outside of a joke or two that work, especially the ones coming from Pete’s dad (played by Albert Brooks), This is 40 is packed with uninteresting side-line characters who come and go like Saturday Night Live characters, and it is entirely too long.  Even the great Melissa McCarthy’s scene is a dud, except for showing the audience that the main characters can bond over attacking a nine-year-old boy and then making his mother look stupid for being outraged.

This is 40 is certainly a disappointing direction to see Apatow heading in.  Hopefully, he’ll reexamine the lives of his characters and find better forms of ‘honesty’ than misery.  D 

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