dir: Theodore Melfi
Old grumpy curmudgeons becoming less so (grumpy and curmudgeonly, not the old bit, since there’s no cure for that) over the course of a flick is a genre in and of itself. There’s this inherent belief, ably supported by movies, that even the most misanthropic dullard can be brought out of themselves by the attention and love of a much younger person.
It’s a template as old as movies themselves. The first movie ever was a home movie of a crotchety Thomas Edison screaming at people to get off his lawn at Menlo Park, until some filthy urchin teaches him to love again.
And that was 100 years ago. There have been exactly 10,000 versions of this theme in the interim. They do it in every country, in every language. I’ve probably seen five versions of this in the last month alone.
When it’s done well, it’s as good as Pixar’s Up, or About A Boy, that one with Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult, a film I still have a lot of time for. When it’s bad, it’s creepy, or unearned, or just generally uncomfortable. Like As Good As It Gets, 90 per cent of Clint Eastwood’s recent movies, or many, many, many other versions of the theme.
Because it’s such a formula, it doesn’t really hold any surprises for us. What it does hold is ample opportunities for actors of a certain age to desperately grasp one last time for that Oscar that’s eluded them thus far.
Plus, it must be easy as shit to play a grumpy old man when you’re already a grumpy old man. You wouldn’t want to expend too much effort, would you?
Not when there’s quality lying down or writing Letters to the Editor to be done. Bill Murray can finally start playing these crotchety old bastard roles, and he does so here.
As Vincent McKenna, he lives somewhere in Brooklyn, speaks with a Boston accent for some reason, and is general rude to people, a drink driver, and is generally a class-A jerk. He generally can’t even pay what he owes a local Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts) when she visits.
Essential part of this template is that there has to be a reason for the guy to be a jerk, and this story is no different. Of course when that ‘reason’ is revealed, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference.
A kid (Jaeden Lieberher) moves in next door, with his recently divorced mum (Melissa McCarthy, for once not playing the worst person in the movie), and this kid Oliver is going to be the one to make Vincent a better person.
At least in theory. In theory, Vincent’s gruffness and rudeness conceals a heart of gold. In theory, once he sees the struggles of the single mom next door to make ends meet and look after her son, he’ll take the kid under his wing and teach him stuff about being a man. After all, Vincent’s a Vietnam vet, and can drive.
Those are about the only positive things I can see in the portrayal. Don’t get me wrong: I love Bill Murray. It’s fun watching him play an alcoholic old prick who treats people like shit. It’s fun in the way that it was fun to watch Billy Bob Thornton play the worst possible Santa in Bad Santa.
The major difference is that when Thornton was bad, he was awful. And he was pretty much consistently a jerk as well as a criminal throughout the entire flick. That he had a flicker of feeling for the pathetic boy in his charge didn’t negate that he was still a very bad man.
They barely commit to Vincent being that ‘bad’ in this. He’s selfish, and he’s rude, but it feels pretty perfunctory. It’s like they don’t really have that much for him to do, and they’re not sure how far to go, but hey know they want to keep it PG-13, so mostly it seems like Murray is treading water.
The kid in this is sweet enough, and tiny/scrawny enough that we’re meant to sympathise with his attempts to stick up for himself in this cruel world, but his only real problem is that he hangs out with a guy who thinks nothing of drinking and driving. As wonderful as Vincent is meant to be in the end, which made no goddamn sense at all, about the only thing I could really see that he gave the kid was company. That companionship he provides for money, but I guess the flick makes the point that even people who initially provide their time and presence for money can eventually come to care about you.
Which brings me to Naomi Watts as the Russian prostitute. At first I thought it was a joke, and at any moment Naomi Watts was going to address the audience directly and say “This is a joke, because I’m pretending to be a different character from Eastern Promises, you know that flick with Viggo and all those Russian gangsters and prostitutes? Of course you remember it; Viggo kills all those guys in the bathhouse with his todger out, yeah, you remember it. How could you forget?”
After a while I realised that it wasn’t a joke, and her mercenary Russian harlot with a heart of golden borscht was ‘for real’ at least within the context of the movie. Initially, I thought her portrayal was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen her do onscreen, or in pretty much any movie, and that includes her stint as Princess Diana. After a while, though, I thought it was quite funny to see her playing this character. She, I guess we are lead to believe, undergoes something of a transformation herself, eventually providing her services for less than market prices.
It’s almost like love, I guess.
There are some good people in small roles in this. I have no goddamn idea why Terrence Howard is in this movie, and I doubt whether he does either. He’s in it for a few minutes as a loan shark / bookie who Vincent owes money to, and it really adds nothing to the film or his resume.
Coming off much better is Chris O’Dowd in a similarly small role as a Catholic brother / priest who teaches at the school where Oliver goes. He excels in a small role, bringing some humour and warmth to a role that sorely needs it. I mean, the Catholics need all the help they can get with their public image these days, what with all the… unpleasantness and such.
This flick is enjoyable enough, but it’s pretty lazy, and pretty ill considered in some areas. It doesn’t have the balls to commit either way into whether Vincent is an irredeemable prick or whether he’s a saint that walks among us, so it just says he’s one for most of its length and then decides he’s the other at the end. Literally. A lot of his problems that only get more serious as the film goes on are entirely his fault, and he routinely makes things worse for himself and the people around him. Yet he’s an alcoholic saint that walks among us in between stealing from kids and drink driving?
But then the flick almost mystically culminates in a bizarre celebration that’s meant to be the equivalent of winning the big game or saving the community centre from the evil developers, and it makes no sense whatsoever, but it does leave us with a gooey feeling in our hearts before we file out of the cinema. At least in theory.
I was reasonably happy when it ended, but a strangely elongated scene of Murray sitting in his dusty backyard poorly singing along to Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm emphasised for me that the director might not have really known what the hell he was doing for much of this flick, and if anything worked it was out of luck or because the actors and producers had some ideas of their own. It might have one of the least earned ‘happy’ endings that I’ve ever seen, but it’s hardly like I cared by that stage. I just wanted it over with.
Murray is solid, he can deliver all sides of a performance, from the comedic to the dramatic, and even in a flick as malformed as this it’s still enjoyable to spend time with him and his crappy dancing.
Let’s be honest, he’s the only reason anyone checked this out. I just hope people aren’t too disappointed.
6 times Bill Murray’s funky dancing is probably the funniest / saddest part of the flick out of 10
“We celebrate all the religions of the world in this room, Oliver. I'm a Catholic, which is the best of all the religions, really, because we have the most rules. And the best clothes. But among us, there is also a Buddhist, agnostic, we have a Baptist, and we have an "I don't know", which seems to be the fastest growing religion in the world.” – it’s always lovely when Catholics acknowledge their inherent irrelevancy in the present world – St Vincent