“St. Vincent” and “Whiplash” – Reviews

18 Oct

St. VincentThe career of Bill Murray has become more myth than career. He is no longer merely an actor; Bill Murray is a slice of contemporary performance art, showing up at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, his ho-hum face plastered on t-shirts across the hipsterverse. He is an icon of nerdy coolness, the serene man-child of Americana. Which means that each new Bill Murray film is a cause for…well, I guess going to see if it’s any good. Since Lost in Translation, Bill Murray has not just become an icon, but he has transcended his previous incarnation as droll comic and become droll Serious Actor.

In his newest outing, St. Vincent, Murray plays Vincent McKenna, a crotchety old man living out his life in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn where he drinks, smokes, gambles, and yells at passing cars like a rabid dog at a kindly postman. The arrival of Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) and her cute-as-a-button son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) slowly begins to change his life. Locked out of his house while his mother is at work, Oliver crashes at Vincent’s. Soon – for twelve bucks an hour – Vincent becomes Oliver’s babysitter, which entails taking the kid to the track and a bar, teaching him how to fight, and imparting all those wonderful life lessons Oliver’s absent father (John Adsit, who is as sorely underused here as he was in 30 Rock) never got to teach him. Hanging out with Oliver softens Vincent as well, and we begin to see the loveable guy underneath.

If this sounds like a treacly, overly-sentimental load of hooey, you’d be absolutely right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with coupling a boy’s coming of age tale with an older man’s redemption story. Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino did something similar, but it did it right. There, the script was pared down, letting the emotional depth flow from the performances. St. Vincent actually employs a slide show to tug at our heart strings. (I would be remiss to point out that said slide show did bring a couple of tears to my eyes while simultaneously making me despise the filmmakers for being so cheap.)

St. Vincent errs on a basic thematic level. The premise – that ordinary people, even selfish assholes like Vincent are saintly – is undermined by the character of Vincent himself. Yes, he’s a war hero, and yes he loves his wife (who has dementia and lives in an assisted living facility), but he also does some very bad things. And not just to himself. If Vincent is a saint, who the hell isn’t?

Murray – inconsistent Brooklyn accent aside – is wonderful, as we all knew he would be. Melissa McCarthy, finally not playing the clichéd funny fat lady, shows enormous depth of character. It’s Naomi Watts, however, as a pregnant Russian prostitute, who steals the movie with a performance that is acidly funny, even if she’s playing the oldest professional cliché – the hooker with a heart of gold.

Yes, the acting is all quite good, but the actors are saddled with syrupy plot points and characters that border on stereotypes. It’s as if the writer/director (Theodore Melfi) did not trust either his own talent or the talent he assembled to tell this story without relying on cliches and beating the audience over the head with gooey sentimentality.

I guess St. Vincent can be classified as an Independent film. The Indie Film is one of those concepts that has morphed since the years of Sex, Lies & Videotape through Clerks, Pulp Fiction, Kids, Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation, Juno, Moonrise Kingdom, and so many more. Last year 12 Years a Slave won both the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards. Basically any character driven film which has no explosions, superheroes, cars that turn into robots, and is not based on a Nicholas Sparks novel can be classified as an Indie.

But just because you’re small budget, have an excellent cast, are character driven, and somehow snagged Bill Murray, doesn’t mean you’re any good, and St. Vincent is actually much closer to pretty bad than any good.

***

WhiplashWe are supposed to like Bill Murray’s Vincent because he’s Bill Murray and because underneath it all, gosh darn it, he’s not such a bad sort. No one who leaves St. Vincent is meant to feel conflicted in their views of him (though I did, a bit). The movie makes this point over and over again.

That is so far removed from the feelings you will have for Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) when you walk out of Whiplash. Is he misunderstood? A great teacher? A bully? Inspirational? Nightmarish? He’s all of those, and quite a bit more.

Whereas in St. Vincent, Oliver and Vincent change each other, there is no such even reciprocation in Whiplash. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a nineteen year-old jazz drummer at the prestigious Schaffer Academy (a fictional Julliard) who catches the eye of Simmons’s Fletcher, the musical director of the Academy’s jazz ensemble. This is not Richard Dreyfus’s Mr. Holland or Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating or Mr. Chips or Jaime Escalante or any of those other inspirational cinematic teachers. (The only real comparison is John Houseman’s law professor in The Paper Chase, though he is a pussycat compared to Fletcher.) Fletcher is more a musical director crossed with the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, a raging force whose will is unbending. He screams at, humiliates, slaps, and otherwise reduces his students to sniveling preschoolers who want to run to mommy’s apron strings.

Is he a pure sadist? No, he simply wants to bring out the best in his students, and he believes that the only way to build up character and talent is to first break someone down. He doesn’t believe in coddling students. These are, after all, supposed to be some of the best – potential – musicians in the world. In one memorable passage he claims that the two worst words to impart upon a student is “Good job.” He is not in the business of creating adequate, good enough musicians. He wants to discover, and foster, the next Charlie Parker.

And yet, he is not even the main character of the film. That would be Andrew, who is just as complex as Fletcher. Like many young artists, he is ambitious, arrogant, cut throat, selfish, solipsistic, and basically a douche to those around him. He is also remarkably talented (at least according to this untrained ear).

While there are plot point issues – an under-utilized romance, some Act III implausibilities – the film succeeds as a character study, not of contrasting characters, but of complementary ones. Fletcher sees in Andrew someone he can mold and nurture, even if he is a tyrant about it. And to Andrew, Fletcher is the teacher with the golden touch, the man who can place one call and make your career. Or end it.

J.K. Simmons is best known as a character actor. The father in that movie, the police lieutenant in something else. If you don’t know his name, you most likely know his face. Miles Teller is basically the talented version of Shia LaBeouf – a guy who specializes in conflicted assholes (see last year’s very good The Spectacular Now, where his asshole-ishness is just as nuanced). Putting these two together is an acting clinic. Simmons is terrific, not because of his tirades, but because of the quiet moments, the calms before the storm. Like a great piece of music, he lowly builds up tempo, erupting in a modulated crescendo.

And then you’ve got the Work. The Work is the rehearsals, the practicing, the classes. I don’t know squat about music or music school, but having gone to film school I understand not just the arrogance and ambition that flows through a conservatory style education, but also the hours of Work. Whiplash does not try to explain what all the musical terms mean. When Fletcher asks the class “Who was out of tune?” frankly, I could not tell you, but I’m sure some people could. The Work here – the music, the mistakes, the little details – is not window dressing like an operating room in a medical drama.

As I was watching Whiplash, part of me wished that I had had a teacher like Terrance Fletcher, someone who actually cared so much about your art that he will tear you down in order to build you up. And part of me thinks I would have stayed torn down. Because being a young artist – musician, filmmaker, writer, dancer, whatever – in a place like New York, is a dog-eat-dog life. You kind of have to go towards the Ayn Rand-Machiavelli axis of selfish self-determination in order to succeed. Nice guys don’t finish last because they aren’t even chosen to be part of the race.

Whiplash should be required viewing for anyone who wants to go to an undergraduate arts program. Parents should sit their kids down and say, “Is this really what you want?”

St. Vincent and Whiplash are the polar opposite states of Indie film today. One is a sloppy piece of sentimentality disguised as sentiment. The other is as crisp and honed as a perfectly rehearsed jazz piece.

Grades:

St. Vincent: C-

Whiplash: A-

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