The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
St. Vincent

Written by Patrick Pilkington.

Photo from the article When I first saw St. Vincent, the film it reminded me of most was the classic It's A Wonderful Life (1946, Dir: Frank Capra). Several things prompted this - for a start, although not strictly a Christmas film, it was released in the UK in December of 2014, and played with the festive season's association with heart-warming entertainment in its marketing ("This Xmas Meet St. Vincent" ran one tagline, the title festooned, deliberately haphazardly, in tinsel). The film also shares with Capra's classic a religious inflection that is far from common in the contemporary Hollywood cinema, as it relates the tenets of sainthood to the everyday struggle of the 21st Century Westerner. But more than anything else, St. Vincent reminded me of the earlier film in its attempts to reconcile an awareness of life's less 'wonderful' elements with the utopian sensibility Richard Dyer sees as characteristic of screen entertainment. The film's utopian strategies of containment and recuperation result in a happy ending somewhat at odds with the prior depiction of unremitting pressures within its social world. I would like to explore the film's initial depiction of an unsatisfactory world, its utopian strategies for dealing with this world, and the nuances embedded in both of these aspects that few of the film's reviews seem to have engaged with.

As mentioned in my introduction, this reading of St. Vincent draws upon Richard Dyer's text 'Entertainment and Utopia'. Dyer explores entertainment's utopian sensibility, which he locates in its provision of answers within the diegesis to 'social tensions, inadequacies, and absences' that exist in the world off-screen. The five main problem/solution dialectical pairings he discusses are scarcity/abundance, exhaustion/energy, dreariness/intensity, manipulation/transparency, and fragmentation/community. Dyer's project involves balancing a consideration of both the representational and non-representational signs that make up these utopian images. The former embodied in the dominant structures of film narrative and audience expectation - "stars are nicer than we are, characters [are] more straightforward than people we know, situations more soluble than those we encounter" - and the latter present on the level of "colour, texture, movement, rhythm, melody, camerawork", etc. I intend to focus predominantly on the representational in St. Vincent, although there is undoubtedly plenty to say about the film's mise-en-scène, its visual depiction of New York, and its uses of music, amongst other non-representational elements.

The aspect of Dyer's argument most relevant to my discussion is his awareness of the utopians emergence as a response to the problems of our everyday social world(s) and its implications. Dyer states:

To be effective, the utopian sensibility has to take off from the real experiences of the audience. Yet to do this, to draw attention to the gap between what is and what could be, is, ideologically speaking, playing with fire [Films must] work through these contradictions at all levels in such a way as to 'manage' them, to make them seem to disappear. They don't always succeed.

Perhaps St. Vincent is interesting in part because it does not quite succeed. Dyer's reference to "the gap between what is and what could be" applies well to a film that contains two instances of our lead, facing financial crisis, being offered a well-meaning but defeatist "it is what it is" on complaint. Within its first few minutes, St. Vincent presents a series of escalating but recognisable calamities, self-induced and otherwise, that befall its lead (played by Bill Murray), from the realisation that he is overdrawn at the bank to the culminating drunken slippage on an ice cube that knocks him unconscious. This opening simultaneously presents the character of Vincent as one we make sense of through the associations of Murray's persona - the individualistic outsider observing the world from a space somewhere between wry detachment and wilful, nonconformist eccentricity - while establishing a more problematic set of issues Vincent seems to have: with money, with drinking, with his neighbourhood, with himself. Vincent's lifestyle is already shown to be unsustainable within this world; his reckless indulgences have consequences and his freedom (to gamble, to evade work) is restricted by monetary issues. The most complex and interesting of the threads introduced in the opening, an near-ironic distorted image of a utopian relationship, is Vincent's tryst with the heavily-pregnant prostitute Daka (Naomi Watts). She seems to offer the one uncomplicated and fulfilling relationship in his life, and yet her looming pregnancy also throws into doubt the continuation of it in its current form.

The subsequent scenes introduce Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) a single mother who moves next door to Vincent with her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). The 'tensions, inadequacies and absences' of the film's everyday world (and its tonal mixture of heavy drama and often broad comedy) is embodied also in Maggie's struggles, and is encapsulated by a scene where, having been called in to the teacher's office at Oliver's Catholic school, she ends up tearfully reeling off a list of her own problems to two ill-equipped men of the cloth. To consider the film in relation to Dyer's configuration of the utopian-as-response, it is scarcity that seems the most prevalent of the social inadequacies St. Vincent addresses. This is very much a film of the recession, and the financial basis of the majority of Vincent's, Maggie's and Daka's anxieties are articulated for each within their first few scenes. Daka has no health insurance, and her pregnancy leaves her avenues for sex work in a precarious position. Maggie must work long hours to support herself and her son, in the process fragmenting her relationship with the latter. And in perhaps the darkest of the film's narrative threads, Vincent becomes unable to fund the care of his wife, who has Alzheimer's disease and resides at an assisted living facility. Many of these situations are initially presented as essentially intractable - 'it is what it is'. The film's narrative develops around a series of obstacles that emerge, recede, magnify and interlock at an unusually fast rate, and which sometimes seem to only tangentially fit with basic cause-effect models of narrative (Vincent's stroke, that sets into motion the film's third act, is a perfect example of this).

The film is also aware of the fallibility of its characters, in particular Vincent, whose redemptive arc, pivoted around his relationship with Oliver, is repeatedly thwarted, complicated, or stalled by his own self-destructiveness. This is effectively articulated in the sequence when a montage of bonding activities that seems to show Vincent indoctrinating Oliver into his brand of traditional masculinity abruptly shifts tone when they reach Vincent's local bar. The consequences of the older man's hedonism and irresponsibility, as he proceeds to drink himself into a pathetic, angry stupor, become clear to the child and to the audience. The film plays upon the particularities of Bill Murray's cult hero status to complicate our reaction to the character. Murray's charm feeds into our initial understanding of Vincent, but the film examines the limits of the curmudgeonly nonconformist and old-school male personae. Vincent is an embezzler, gambler and alcoholic who says and does some terrible things and who is shown to wilfully retreat into solipsism in order to avoid engagement. The complexity of response to this character that the film invites is gauged from another moment during its opening scene, when we cut from Vincent having sex with Daka to a shot of a framed picture of his wife, wobbling on a dresser. 'Stars are nicer than we are' but this film intermittently distances us from Murray in order to elicit an ambivalence towards Vincent. (Likewise, any film that casts Melissa McCarthy, famous for her gallery of broad comic characterisations, as the most recognisably everyday of the film's major characters, and Naomi Watts, the tragedienne of the 21st Century cinema, as the comic relief, is clearly invested in playing with star expectations.)

Yet part of the film's utopian impulse involves absorbing this awareness of human fallibility into a larger project, using an awareness of the unattainability of individual perfection to reconfigure what we think of as the saintly and affirm the decency inherent to the human struggle. The film's refusal to demonise any of its characters leads to more interesting and less predictable avenues of narrative resolution and development than many of the film's reviews have given it credit for. The subplot involving Oliver's interaction with a school bully, Ocinski (Dario Barosso), does not end with the former's physical triumph over the latter in the sports hall, but extends to the subsequent development of a close friendship between the two. Zucko (Terrence Howard), the intimidating gambling profiteer owed money from Vincent, is allowed partly through the film's proliferation and distribution of individual problems, to be humanised. In this world, even the bad guy clearly works out of desperation. In a key late moment, Maggie is made by Oliver to acknowledge that the ex-husband whom she has only referenced negatively up to this point is probably not so bad after all. This moment most likely functions to anticipate the climactic reclamation of another problematic father figure (Vincent himself), but nevertheless speaks also to a refusal to villainise or downplay individual struggle.

<i>Its a Wonderful Life</i>
Its a Wonderful Life
The less seamlessly integrated elements of the film's utopianism reside in its inability to sufficiently readdress or resolve the problems that exist outside of the level of individual interaction. The numerous monetary struggles, articulated over and over again within the film, are entirely brushed aside by the final scenes, whereas similar problems are explicitly resolved, albeit dubiously tidily, by the end of It's A Wonderful Life. We are not asked to consider the money Vincent owes Zucko, his embezzlement of Oliver's bank account, the payment of his healthcare, or the unlikelihood of any subsequent income post-stroke. Instead, the film presents a series of utopian transformations of previously intractable problems so that the utopian "what could be" in effect becomes the "what is", bypassing broader implications in order to emphasise interpersonal alterations as utopian solutions. Daka re-employs herself as Vincent's nurse and cleans up his house. His stroke also seems to remove the possibility of their sexual partnering (she specifically re-casts herself as his carer when he returns home from the hospital), allowing the film to downplay her problematic ideological status and align her to the much safer figure of mother and nurturer. The cracks in the mother/son relationship next door are also smoothed over by the film's end; a late scene shows Maggie now able to stay at home and make breakfast for Oliver, fulfilling what the film seems to affirm as her motherly duties. Once again, the film offers no explanation as to how she has suddenly been able to find the work/home balance that up until now has been deemed insoluble. Our final scene (discounting the post-script that runs alongside the credits, of Vincent sunbathing as he listens to Bob Dylan's 'Shelter from the Storm' - the film's clearest nod to Murray's cult status) exemplifies the utopian sensibility, refiguring our previously fragmented characters as a utopian community by using the symbolic resonance of the dinner table to present Vincent, Daka, their baby, Maggie, Oliver, and Ocinski as a family of sorts. The film has reversed its previous development; suddenly, transformation is possible, these peoples' problems are soluble. And what is being affirmed are the notions of family and community that, while somewhat altered for a mass audience more attuned to irony, is fundamentally no different from the Baileys and Bedford Falls of It's A Wonderful Life.

The apotheosis of the film's utopianism however, and I think one of its clearest parallels to It's A Wonderful Life, occurs in the preceding scene, however with the canonisation of Vincent at Oliver's school. Earlier in the film, Oliver's teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd) sets an assignment for his students to appoint a living saint and give a presentation on why they have chosen their particular individual. Oliver chooses an unsuspecting Vincent, who is falsely lured to the ceremony by Daka and watches a testimony to his life and character unfold before him. Part of the 'what can be' that the utopian sensibility can bring into being, as it does here and in It's A Wonderful Life, is the idea of not only being recognised but valorised for one's achievements, through a precarious combination of universality (if Vincent can be considered a saint, we all can be too) and exceptionalism (only Vincent is sainted, raising ideological implications surrounding the affirmation of the broken father figure and the side-lining of the mother). The notion of saints as individuals, humans, and of this particular individual sufficiently exhibiting the 'courage, sacrifice, compassion, humanity' necessary for sainthood, parallels It's A Wonderful Life's affirmation of the everyday person in its famous motto "No man's a failure who has friends." Similarly to the entire community of Bedford Falls rallying to George Bailey's house at the finale of It's A Wonderful Life, reaction shots of numerous minor characters from earlier in the film, shown to be present during Oliver's speech, attests to the idea of any life that touches others as a special one. Despite Vincent's flaws, his demeanour belies a genuine involvement in the lives of others that the film affirms and asks us to consider in relation to our own relationships.

Gilberto Perez, writing on the conclusion of It's A Wonderful Life, states that the happy ending contains "the kind of improbability that could have easily been smoothed over but is instead made difficult [...] for us not to recognise as such. But [the ending is] not exactly ironic either. Things would not happen this way in real life, we know, and yet we smile in tense and wishful suspension of disbelief." This is exactly the response the final scenes of St. Vincent inspired in me, and, I would maintain, many others who have seen the film. Both films present a considerable amount of their running times depicting the absences and inadequacies that dog the lives of many individuals, and both films rectify this with a climactic outpouring of utopianism that affects us emotionally even as we recognise its implausibility. Vincent's canonisation moves from something we can laugh at the notion of - the title takes on an oxymoronic quality as soon as we are introduced to the titular 'saint' - to something we wholeheartedly embrace by the final scenes; an image of 'what can be' that is all the more effective for being rooted in the struggles and inadequacies of 'what is'.

This Alternate Take was published on March 31, 2015.

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