St. Vincent (2014)

Imagine Gran Torino (2008) with Bill Murry in for Clint Eastwood and NYC in for Detroit.

Need I say more?

Watching St. Vincent was a one-of-a-kind experience. On the one hand, I knew that I’d seen pretty much everything in it before. On the other, it smelled like a very fresh tomato. I’m still trying to figure out how both can be true; I suspect A-list acting may be largely to blame as Murry, McCarthy, and Watts each bring their characters to life in ways that escape their respective tropes. If I had to sum up the film in one word (which is usually a bad idea but I’m desperate), I think it would be charming. There’s lots about the film that feels right now: pluralism, economic depressiveness, a post-Victorian sense of morals, etc. Add in a dash of whimsy and it’s not surprising this film has been so praised.

To be honest, I feel like St. Vincent is a faith-based film, the faith just isn’t a major religion. Looking at the poster, maybe this shouldn’t be surprising…

The more I think the film in this light, the more things fall into place. There’s “diversity” (the best friend is hispanic, the prostitute is Russian) but then again the only principal black man is a “thug.” Vincent may not be “redeemed” from alcoholism and gambling, but those sides of him don’t really capture his character, his “true self.” As the film makes so blatantly, blatantly clear, saints are real and they’re all around us, we just have to remember that having human flaws doesn’t disqualify someone from righteousness.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that really is the message of this story (yes, this is a film with a “message”). The problem is, the message doesn’t make much sense. The tradition of sainthood is long, complex, and political—no matter how one feels about “saints” there’s an awful lot to dig through. This film, however, refuses to even pick up a shovel; instead we are told that whoever this pre-pubescent kid admires is worthy of the recognition.

The worst part is, I can’t decide if this is stupid or profound.

On the one hand, even aside from the weird qualifications, the lengthy process of recognizing “sainthood” feels properly intricate. After all, while we all have traces of the human and divine, there is still merit to setting up some (especially those who have sacrificed so many short-term pleasures) as models to inspire the rest of us toward sanctification. There is a richness to the tradition of the saints that is trampled on by the humanistic reductionism celebrated by the film.

On the other hand, we do all have traces of the human and the divine and—in a day and age where “church” has become a distant and imposing concept—it is beautiful to see and reward the image of God in everyone, even (especially) those who are washed up and burnt out. To do this, we may need the eyes of a child—the eyes of innocence and imagination—to get over the “mature” litigiousness of religion and meet people where they are.

The challenge of a childlike faith is always profound, at least to someone like me who understands so little of it. Perhaps, then, St. Vincent is more than just a pleasant film—it is an important one (just not in the way I’ve come to expect). With that, I think I’ll stop second-guessing my every thought and sign off, hoping as all critics do that I’ve said at least a little more than:

“It is what it is.”

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