Monday, October 20, 2014

St. Vincent [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Talerico) review
AVClub (J. Hessenger) review

St. Vincent [2014] (written and directed by Theodore Melfi) is a film that I honestly wish I could like more, but I don't.  Okay, the characters, a bit exaggerated, are certainly well drawn.  As a Catholic priest who's spent years telling folks that the only ones who could do justice to life at a Rectory would be the folks who wrote for the sitcom Barney Miller [1974-82] [IMDb], I think I can say that I've encountered every single character portrayed in the film.  And yes, that _would_ include Naomi Watts' pregnant Russian hooker Daka, "not often" mind you, but at vibrant parish, one runs into everyone.

I'll go further.  My favorite character in the film is certainly Chris Dowd's Brother Geraghty, a beleaguered 5th-6th grade religion teacher at St. Patrick's Catholic School (somewhere in Brooklyn) trying desperately hard to be relevant to a diverse class where even most of the Catholics (only about 1/2 of the students) are not practicing.  He jokes that "I don't know" appears to be "the fastest growing religion of our time" ;-).   He's the one who gives his students the assignment to write about "a saint of our times," which inspires a sweet 10 year old named Oliver (played by Jaeden Lieberher) to write an essay about his grouchy neighbor Vincent (played otherwise to an Oscar nomination worthy level by Bill Murray) who's the only person his divorcing mother Maggie (played again magnificently _and mostly straight_ by Melissa McArthry) could rapidly find to serve as his after-school babysitter.

So if I liked the characters and I liked both the writing and acting in general (I do believe that pretty much EVERYBODY came with their A-game to this film), why didn't I much like the final product?  Basically, I can't help but think that the film really "dumbs down" the concept of a Saint, making it essentially meaningless, and yes, I do have a problem with that.

And yes, I'd freely admit that a fair number of the Saints on the Church's calendar could be called "Company Men" who're on the list because they defended to various degrees of sacrifice "the Institution."  And I'd appreciate that some people may have a problem with this.  (Yet what group or institution would not want to celebrate its heroes?)  I'd also admit that some of those on the Church's calendar "had their issues," often with various prejudices.  Interestingly enough St. John Chrysostom (aka over the centuries as "The Golden Tongue...") was _also_ something of a world-class grouch (besides being a very important bishop), and has been accused in modern times of being anti-Semitic (the Church's defense of him has been basically "Well, you don't understand, look at his Sermons, he was like that with basically everybody ... again they didn't call him "The Golden Tongue" for nothing ...)  But pretty much ALL of the people who are on the Church's calendar are there because they encouraged others to be(come) better people of faith and better (yes, kinder more loving) people in general.

I just don't see that in Bill Murray's Vincent, and I'd honestly think that his Vincent would agree with me.  He was a grouch.  He did do some admirable things, including (largely hidden from view of others) taking care of his Alzheimer's stricken wife.  But he'd almost certainly be among the first to understand that he wasn't exactly an example to follow.  And if not for a 10 year-old kid bestowing Sainthood on him at a lovely school assembly, he'd probably consider the whole thing "a crock..." ;-) ... though Vincent did have the kindness / sense to accept the compliment / honor from his sincere and well meaning 10 year old neighbor. 

But are we so "self-esteem starved" (or far worse, so _narcisistic_ today) that we need to pluck people down from heaven and pull ourselves up to their level to make ourselves feel "better" about ourselves?
Don't get me wrong, I've buried plenty of lovely people over the years, as well as people who were "complex", by no means "completely evil," but also not folks to exactly "write home about."

Now it turns out, of course, that this film is coming out in the United States at exactly around the time of All Saints' (Nov 1) / All Souls' (Nov 2) Days.  For non-Catholics, that's where Halloween (All Hallows' Eve - Oct 31) comes from.

Over the years, I've come to appreciate the value of All Souls' Day when we remember our faithful departed.  It's not a bad tradition to remember those loved ones who went before us, who again, were certainly not "completely evil" but also, if we're honest about it, were not exactly perfect.  In the Catholic Church, those who die "in a state of grace" but still with imperfections go a place called Purgatory where those imperfections are slowly erased and they are able then to join those in Heaven.  Why this Doctrine about a "middle place" between Heaven and Hell?  When out of both Honesty and Mercy.  Most of us truly _do not_ achieve perfection in this world.  And yet it would seem cruel, even to us, to send "the imperfect" but certainly not "hopeless" to Hell.  And if we ourselves can not bring ourselves to send the merely imperfect to Hell, why would God?  Thus Purgatory ... where we're given basically "however long it takes ..." (if perhaps "under some pressure" ...) to iron out those imperfections prior to entering truly perfect into heaven.  (It's honestly a very sensible doctrine ;-)

In any case, Bill Murray's Vincent as portrayed was certainly _not_ a Saint (yet).  But like so many of us, he still had potential.  So happy All Saints / All Souls Days folks!

But also please let's also not lazily "dumb down" the concepts of Perfection, Sainthood and Heaven.

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