There but for the grace of God: Bill Murray as Bill Murray might have been in Theodore Malfi’s comedy of forgiveness, St Vincent.
Bill Murray’s a wreck.
He’s playing a wreck, he should look like one. But in St Vincent he doesn’t just look like one. He’s become one. This one. Vin McKenna. Heavy drinker. Heavy smoker. Sixty-something victim of a lifetime of bad habits. Murray looks like the wreck you’d expect a guy like that to look like. He acts like a guy who’s a wreck like that would act. Except that he doesn’t give any sign he’s acting. He’s being himself. And he’s a wreck.
What Murray does in St Vincent is different from what Meryl Streep does in her movies. Streep uses herself as a canvass on which she paints incredibly lifelike portraits of other people. Look closely and you can always spot the artist at work. It’s different from what Philip Seymour Hoffman did. Hoffman found a way to turn every character into a version of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a technique based on the ideas that situation and circumstances create character, that people are as alike as they are different, and much of who we are is determined by how we react to who and what are acting upon us. This is how leading men and leading women---movie stars---who are great actors tend to work and it’s what causes people who don’t know better to say “Oh he’s just playing himself again.” Because their characters look like movie stars playing them, people tend to see only the movie stars. Hoffman looked like a character so people would say he was a great character actor. Which he was. But here I think Murray is just playing himself.
But not the self his fans know. Maybe not the self anyone but Murray knows, that secret self we all have, the one we’re afraid to let anyone else see because we’re afraid they’d recoil in horror or disgust or contempt or hilarity, and Murray’s been brave enough to let that self show. It’s possible it’s a self Murray didn’t know was in him until he read the script. I don’t know, of course, but I imagine him saying to himself, I know this guy. I could have been this guy. In another life I am this guy.
The accent’s different, that’s all. Brooklyn not Chicago. Otherwise, Vin is Murray and Murray is Vin. Same born rebel as wiseguy attitude. Same subversive impulses. Same way of sounding sincere when he’s mocking you, same way of sounding like he’s mocking when he’s being sincere. Same insouciant refusal to care what others think of him and adjust his behavior accordingly. What Vin doesn’t have is the money and fame that allows Murray to get away with it. And he’s probably never traveled in circles where this behavior would make him a hero. More likely it’s always marked him as a trouble-making pain in the ass. But what he’s really missing and has never had is Murray’s luck.
Vin has had some luck. But it’s the luck of a survivor, not the kind of luck that makes you successful except in the sense you somehow manage to get by and keep going until the next set of troubles, sorrows, catastrophes, and failures come along.
The small graces and favors that attended Murray at the right time in the right place, the good things that happened, the bad things that didn’t, the family he was blessed with, the friendships he was able to make, the teachers who were there when he needed them, the sharp-eyed mentors who saw something in this kid, all the coincidental, accidental, and serendipitous moments that taken together determine our fate, all the luck---which the vain and conceited deny is luck and boastfully claim as the result of their own unaided and unsupported effort---Murray enjoyed, Vin missed out on.
The result is that after a life of probably daily struggle, disappointment, frustration, and reversal if not outright failure, he’s alone, broke, bitter, and worn-out, without anyone to call on for help or even moral support, and almost too tired and too full of self-loathing to care.
He can’t be bothered.
He can’t be bothered to look out for himself. He can’t even be bothered to dress properly. He can’t be bothered to concern himself about other people. He can’t be bothered to to take their feelings into account. He’s rude. He’s gratuitously insulting. He seems to go out of his way to offend people he needs on his side.
He’s selfish. He’s conniving. He’s opportunistic. He takes on a babysitting job because it’s an opportunity to make some money quickly without having to do real work for it. When he sees the boy’s mother is desperate, he takes advantage and charges her more than he can guess she can comfortably afford.
And it seems that all that’s keeping him going is stubbornness and spite.
He’s a physical and spiritual wreck.
And Bill Murray plays this guy as if he is this guy.
It’s a true There But for the Grace of God Go I performance. The Catholic version. Not the Calvinist version. The Calvinist version is a smug, self-congratulatory I’m favored by God with an underlying terror that that favor will be withdrawn without warning or apparent reason. The Catholic version is I’m lucky and the luck can run out but there’s no terror because the Catholic God never withdraws his favor. His son and his son’s Mother and an entire calendar of saints won’t let him. The Calvinist version blames the unfavored and disfavored. The Catholic version teaches the lucky to have pity and compassion for the unlucky. One is judgmental. The other is charitable. St Vincent, as if you couldn’t guess from the title, is a very Catholic movie.
Maybe the best Catholic movie ever made, after John Huston’s The Dead.
I don’t mean that it’s Catholic in the way of Going My Way or Song of Bernadette. There’s no idealizing of the One True Church or sentimentalizing of its communicants. I don’t mean it’s a religious movie. God is named but he’s not worshiped. Faith doesn’t seem to motivate any of the characters, not even the ones whose business is spreading the faith. And I don’t mean it’s a movie about Catholics doing Catholic-ish things. Nobody goes to Confession. Nobody goes to Mass. One of the main supporting characters is a priest, but he’s no Bing Crosby or Pat O’Brien or Spencer Tracy or Karl Malden or even a Montgomery Clift, and he’s certainly no Henry Fonda. He’s just a tired man trying to keep his spirits up and his faith in himself intact while doing a thankless job as best he can. The twelve year old boy Vin babysits, Oliver Bronstein, goes to a Catholic school but he’s not Catholic. He doesn’t know what he is. What religion to raise him in is another thing his divorcing parents failed to work out between them. “I think I’m Jewish,” he tells his teacher. His religious ed class’ final project is to research the life of someone who might be a living saint and present what amounts to a hagiography. But the pedagogic goal of the project seems to be for the kids to teach themselves how to use Power Point.
The stated goal is to learn what it means to be a saint. The movie’s take on this is that the first requirement of a saint is to recognize that we are all sinners, including the few of us who might qualify as saints, and to make allowances. Among other things, a saint is someone who understands and forgives.
I’m still enough of a papist to want to claim that as a Catholic theme. But it’s not particularly. What it is is humane.
Vin takes in Oliver because he’s desperate for cash. He’s reached the limit of his credit line on his reverse mortgage. His checking account’s overdrawn. He owes money right and left. If he had any savings they’re long gone. He’s broke and going broker. And we know how he got that way. He drinks. He smokes. He gambles. He goes to strip clubs and hires hookers. As Republicans keeping telling us, money problems are caused by defects in character. You’re broke, it’s your own fault. You screwed up, screwed yourself. Actions have consequences, live with them. And watching Vin self-indulge and self-destruct, it’s hard not to blame him, and because he’s such a jerk, it’s hard not to root for his continued downward slide. And maybe, we think---hope---it’ll wake him up, hitting bottom. Force him to change his ways. Though there’s reason to doubt a jerk like Vin can change.
But, like I said, this is a Catholic movie. The point isn’t redemption, it’s forgiveness. Director and screenwriter Theodore Melfi tries our patience detailing Vin’s unapologetic bad behavior and, scene in and scene out, tempts us to give up on him as a bad bet. But if we’re good Catholics---good Christians, good Jews, good Hindus, good Muslims, good Buddhists, good people, or at least kind-hearted people---we know to withhold judgment.
Oliver knows how to do this. In his experience, there’s always another side of the story, a side nobody’s telling. He knows that his mother’s story and his father’s story about the failure of their marriage don’t match up. More important, neither’s story matches what he’s seen for himself. It’s not that he’s that intuitive. He’s observant. And when he starts observing Vin, he starts seeing there’s a side to Vin’s story Vin won’t tell, maybe can’t tell, maybe because he’s too proud or too stubborn, maybe because it’s too painful, maybe because he sees no point to telling it---Vin’s least favorite expression is “It is what it is.” He hates it because he’s convinced it’s used as an excuse to refuse to try to help others: Wish I could help, but there’s nothing I can do….because I don’t want to do anything. But can mean something else and that something else is Vin’s guiding philosophy: Things go wrong. There’s nothing you can do to change that. You don’t complain. You deal.---maybe because it’s a side Vin himself doesn’t see. In order to tell it, he’d first have to see himself in a different light. He’d have to think of himself as a different kind of person. A good person. Or a not too awful one, at least. And he’s never thought of himself that way. There used to be someone who thought of him that way and because he thought the world of her, he could think a little better of himself for her sake. But she’s not around anymore.
Oliver is, though.
Murray’s is the performance the movie’s built upon, but Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver makes St Vincent work.
Although Vin becomes the subject of Oliver’s living saints project, if there’s a character in St Vincent who’s anything close to a saint it’s Oliver. But there’s nothing particularly saintly about Lieberher’s performance. Nothing over cute or cloying either. Nothing nice. He makes no overt play for our sympathy or approval. His Oliver is just a decent, well-meaning kid who’s learned how to make the best of bad situations and the best way he’s found is not to hold other people’s mistakes and bad behavior against them. He takes them for what they are and hopes they’ll do the same for him. Not that he’s a doormat. There’s only so much he’ll put up with. It’s just he’s got enough to worry about without trying to fix people. It is what it is, is his philosophy too, but Lieberher doesn’t play this as resignation, cynicism, or surrender. It’s simply a realistic acceptance of how people are. And in his case it works to get people to reveal other, better sides of themselves.
Lieberher’s Oliver isn’t particularly insightful or empathetic. But he’s intelligent and he’s interested or he makes himself interested. Stuck with Vin for hours on end, dragged along on Vin’s errands with no regard on Vin’s part for the effect on a ten year old kid, having to spend time at the race track watching Vin lose, having to wait and watch while Vin makes unexplained but obviously painful visits to a nursing home, having to sit on a stool next to him when they stop off at Vin’s favorite bar on the way home and watch Vin not watch his drinking, Oliver distracts himself from his own loneliness and boredom by paying attention. He quickly starts to pick up on things. Nothing we haven’t picked up on ourselves already but Oliver puts them together so they add up to more than an explanation or an excuse for Vin.
Murray and Lieberher are terrific, separate and together. But Melissa McCarthy as Oliver’s harried and distracted mother, Maggie, an MRI technician who’s apparently much better at her job than she is at being a parent, surprised me. I still haven’t seen Bridesmaids and I don’t watch Mike & Molly. Up til now I only knew her from endlessly repeated trailers and television ads for Identity Thief and Tammy. Judging by her work in St Vincent, I expect she’s on her way to being what Bill Murray is, a great actor who happened to get started and establish a reputation playing clowns.
Maggie is a loving mother and a devoted mother and probably, under better circumstances, a very good mother, but under the current circumstances she’s failing Oliver and herself by indulging herself in the role of wronged ex-wife. And she was wronged. The movie doesn’t blame her for the breakup of her marriage. Her on his way to be ex-husband did her dirt. But he was a good father if a lousy husband and in fleeing the marriage she didn’t take Oliver’s feelings and needs into account. She didn’t have a plan. Now it’s causing everyone, including herself, extra hardship and pain. But she’s like her son in being able to make the best of bad situations and in being willing to treat everybody else---except Oliver’s father---the way she’d like them to treat her. McCarthy conveys Maggie’s basic decency while doing no special pleading in defense of her failings and she lets us see Maggie’s sadness, frustration, and fear while making clear her outward cheerfulness and hopefulness aren’t just defenses but real strengths, except when they’re weaknesses.
In St Vincent, something similar is going on with Maggie as with Vin. Under other circumstances, some of Vin’s vices would be only mildly bad habits. And when we begin to understand his current circumstances, “vices” stops seeming like the right word. Under her current circumstances, some of Maggie’s better qualities, qualities that used to look like virtues have begun to look like, not vices, but worrisomely self-destructive character flaws. And this is the point. Since none of us can know when our own circumstances might change for the worse and what that change might bring out in us or damp down, we need to hold off on judging others whose luck has failed them until we know their circumstances, and keeping in mind that there but for the grace of God, maybe withhold judgment and do what we can in the way of offering the help and comfort we hope we’ll be offered when our own luck fails.
Depending on how you look at it, St Vincent is a comedy with a deep undercurrent of sadness or a sad movie with a comic surface. Either way, its message is how life can be so funny you want to cry or so sad you can only laugh. This is a theme I think of as Jewish, based on what I observed in my friends and neighbors growing up. But really it’s like what I said about the Catholic themes.
They’re not particularly Jewish or Catholic.
What they are is human.
As Vin’s less than friendly neighborhood bookie, Terrence Howard expands upon a theme he began composing in The Butler: Sleazeballs I Have Known. Chris O’Dowd plays the Christian Brother who teaches religious ed at Oliver’s school and assigns the saints project, a kindly and faithful priest but somewhat discouraged teacher who deals with his students’ indifference and recalcitrance with an overt but ironically expressed hostility that makes them laugh at themselves before they can laugh at him. And Naomi Watts, overdoing it a bit with a Bad news for Moose and Squirrel accent, plays Daka, Vin’s stripper and prostitute Russian immigrant girlfriend who is better expressing her affections through anger and guilt-tripping than through sex. Daka is a devout mercenary but there’s nothing that says self-interest is incompatible with charity and Watts mixes Daka’s greed and generosity to create a plausibly decent person doing what she has to to get by while shielding herself behind a caricature.
Penitential update: Instead of saying an Our Father and three Hail Marys, read Matt Fagerholm’s interview with St Vincent’s director and writer Ted Melfi at rogerebert.com, Life is in the Middle.
“People live in the middle. I think everyone does. Good is on one side, bad is on the other side, and we live in the middle. What’s bad about Oliver’s father? He fell out of love with his wife and he cheated on her. Is that bad? Yeah, cheating on her is bad, but falling out of love isn’t bad. It happens. Maggie is not a good mom and not a bad mom. She’s a mom. There’s heaven and hell in everyone…
“It’s what Pope Francis is saying. He’s saying that the church is a hospital for those who are sick. People of every faith can come there and find help, support, food, love.”
St Vincent, written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Scott Adsit, and Jaeden Lieberher. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.