It’s the craziest thing.
Every year, we get another Black List. Despite the name, the Black List is not the annual list of actors and directors who need to be run out of America because of their political beliefs. Instead, the Black List is a survey of the “most liked” unproduced scripts that are currently floating around Hollywood.
Now, of course, to a large extent, the Black List is basically just another marketing gimmick. A lot of the scripts that have appeared on the Black List were already in development at the time that they appeared and, undoubtedly, there are clever studio execs who think to themselves, “Juno might be a difficult sell so let’s make sure it gets on the Black List!”
However, every year, there are a few films that are put into production directly as a result of the script appearing on the Black List. What’s interesting is just how many of these films turn out to be, if not quite terrible, at least rather forgettable. Transcendence, for instance, was on the Black List. Cedar Rapids was on the Black List. Broken City was on the freaking Black List. Consider this: The Beaver would never have been made except for the fact that it was on The Black List!
What’s particularly interesting is that the script was often the worst thing about these films. These were films with overly complicated scripts that often tried too hard to be both crowd pleasing and quirky. If nothing else, the Black List proves that being the “most liked” doesn’t mean that a script is good, interesting, or intelligent. It just means that it covered all the bases.
Case in point: the new film St. Vincent. St. Vincent sat on top of the Black List and was apparently so “well-liked” that screenwriter Theodore Melfi not only saw his script produced but he also got to direct it. And wouldn’t you know it — the two biggest failings of St. Vincent are the script and the direction.
It’s easy to point out why the direction is bad so I’ll start there. St. Vincent essentially looks like the pilot for one of those sitcoms that would be described as being edgy just because it was about a cranky old man. There is no visual flair to the film. The images just sit there flat on the screen.
As for the script, it would be likable if it didn’t try so hard. St. Vincent is about a guy named Vincent, a war hero who is now a cantankerous old alcoholic and a pathological gambler. His best friend is a pregnant Russian stripper. He owes money to a violent bookie. Every weekend, he visits his wife in a nursing home and he pretends to be a doctor. His wife no longer recognizes him. When the recently divorced Maggie and her awkward son Oliver move in next door, Vincent agrees to babysit after school. At first, Vincent just does it for the money but, as the movie progresses, he teaches Oliver how to stand up for himself and Oliver makes Vincent a little less grumpy. Eventually, Oliver has to do a report for a school about someone in his life that he considers to be a real-life saint and guess who he picks?
St. Vincent tells the type of story that would usually bring me to tears and I’ll admit that there were a few times when I did get teary-eyed. But, ultimately, the script was too heavy-handed for me to maintain those tears. I love crying at movies but, at the same time, I resent it when a movie demands that I cry just because it happens to be mashing down on all of the right buttons. This is one of those movies that doesn’t trust the audience. Instead of letting us react to the characters, it just keeps piling on development after development. It’s not enough that Maggie is a single mother who feels guilty about not being able to pick her son up from school. Instead, Maggie’s ex-husband has to suddenly sue for custody. It’s not enough that Vincent is struggling to pay the bills. Instead, he has to have a bookie who shows up at random and threatens to kill him. There’s more to an effective dramedy than just having half of your cast act as if they’re in a sitcom while the other half acts as if they’re appearing in an old episode of Law & Order.
And yet, despite the script and despite Melfi’s direction, St. Vincent does work and it really works only for one reason. Melfi has managed to assemble a truly outstanding cast. In the role Maggie, Melissa McCarthy proves that she deserves better than having to spend her career making movies like Identity Thief. Jaeden Lieberhrer is likable and sympathetic as Oliver. Playing the pregnant Russian stripper, Naomi Watts does the best that anyone probably could do with that poorly written character.
But, ultimately, the film is totally about Bill Murray. Bill Murray plays Vincent and he saves the entire film. Whether he’s being funny or being serious, Bill Murray gives the type of great performance that justifies his reputation for being a national treasure. When those tears did come to my eyes, it was all due to Murray’s performance.
St. Vincent is a deeply flawed film but it’s worth seeing for Bill Murray.