Friday, October 24, 2014

A scalding look at a writer's life

You might want to read him, but you probably wouldn't invite him over for dinner..
Filmmakers long have struggled when it comes to making films about writers. The problem is as vexing as it is obvious: Who wants to watch someone tapping away at a typewriter or keyboard?

Director Alex Ross Perry understands that the best way to look at a writer's world is by observing what he does when he's not writing.

In the blistering and amusing Listen Up Philip, we meet Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an insufferably egotistical writer who manages to create misery for just about everyone with whom he comes into contact.

But there's balance here, as well: The caustic wit of Perry's screenplay ensures that Philip also suffers. He's tasted the poison he spews.

After a successful and well-received first novel, Philip is on the verge of publishing his second book. The novel, titled Obidant, seems headed for a less-than-glowing reception.

At the outset, and throughout the rest of the movie, Philip's in a fallow period.

For Philip (played by a gaunt, bearded and relentlessly arrogant Schwartzman), other people exist only to punctuate the loneliness and sadness to which he readily confesses.

Philip's only real soulmate arrives in the form of another writer. He's Ike Zimmerman, brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce as a kind of older version of what Philip most probably will become.

The older Zimmerman, who hasn't published a novel in six years, takes Philip under wing. He encourages Philip, but also uses him to bolster his waning and perhaps irrevocably depleted energies.

Ike invites Philip to spend time at his country home, where he freely dispenses his wisdom, always wrapped in an all-knowing and often insensitive authoritarianism.

The story is told to us by an unseen narrator (Eric Bogosian) who may actually be reading from one or the other novelist's subsequent works.

In Manhattan, Philip shares an apartment with Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), a photographer who's beginning to find success. You needn't be much of a prognosticator to know that this relationship can't last.

Watching Moss work is its own pleasure. Ashley becomes the focus of the movie in what amounts to an important, mid-picture digression. Haltingly and then with conviction, Moss shows us how Ashley learns to combat Philip's presence, fighting it off like an infectious disease.

Two other women turn up. Krysten Ritter plays Melanie, the acerbic daughter Ike can't help but wound, and Josephine de La Baume portrays a writing teacher at an upstate college where the dispirited Philip does a brief teaching stint.

Perry (The Color Wheel) shoots the movie in what appears to be an informal, hand-held style, homing in for large, uncomfortable close-ups.

I soured on Birdman partly because its main character -- an actor played by Michael Keaton -- was dislikable and because his problems, though monumental to him, struck me as beside any point about which I really cared.

Philip isn't exactly a bundle of joy, either.

But the difference between the work of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu of that of Perry resides in the sharpness of each's satirical gift, and the knowingness that each brings to the world he's trying penetrate.

Perry's characters don't need exaggeration or Inarritu-style exclamation points. It almost seems as if these writers have constructed their appalling egos in the same way they construct their characters. Even when they're trying to be scrupulously honest, they sound as if they're fictionalizing their lives.

Some see Philip as a youthful stand-in for Philip Roth or have seen the story as taking place in a Roth-like universe. Make your own decision about that.

However you approach the movie, Listen Up Philip is like a very sophisticated joke. Either you get it or you don't. And those on opposing sides of this equation probably should skip that after-movie drink.

If you find yourself taken by the movie, stay for the end credits: They include book jackets that have been amusingly designed. These parting shots offer a last, perspicacious comment on the work of characters we've come to see as awful, but who have been intelligently, comically and precisely nailed.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A look at race on an elite campus

Let's face it, ivy-covered walls may not keep out racism.
Dear White People takes place at a fictional Ivy League university, where -- in one way or another -- just about everyone can be considered privileged.

But rarified Ivy air doesn't necessarily shield students from hypocrisy, prejudice and even racism. Education, we're reminded, doesn't automatically equate with acceptance, tolerance and an open mind.

Writer/director Justin Simien may have had that unfortunate reality in mind when he wrote Dear White People, a movie that does a commendable job of introducing audiences to the pressure cooker environment that surrounds young black people at major universities.

Simien runs his finger across racial fault lines, showing us that post-racial bliss remains more dream than reality.

Set on the campus of Winchester University, Dear White People (the name derives from an in-film radio broadcast by one of the students) isn't only addressed to white people.

Simian points a satirical saber at whites and blacks, basing a key event in the movie on recent news reports about real college fraternities that have held parties in which white students mock what they see as black styles of dress and speech.

Episodic in approach, Dear White People focuses on a variety of characters, each dealing with a different level of racial tension and personal expectation.

Brandon P. Bell plays Troy Fairbanks, a black kid who happens to be the son of the school's dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). When we meet Troy, he's dating a white girl (Brittany Curran), who's the daughter of the school's president (Peter Syvertsen).

We also meet Coleandra "Coco" Corners (Teyonah Parris), a young woman of unconcealed -- if not entirely thought-through -- aspirations.

Then there's Samantha "Sam" White (Tessa Thompson), a modern-day militant who wants to return one of the school's diversified houses (club-like places where students gather for meals) to its all-black roots.

Surprisingly, she's elected head of the house, beating out Bell's Troy, a young man who seems to embody acceptability and poise, but who has his own issues.

Sam's also sleeping with a white student, which is less a sign of hypocrisy than a way for Simien to remind us that things usually are considerably more complicated than they appear.

The movie's resident outsider role goes to Tyler James Williams, who plays Lionel, a gay student with a beach-ball sized Afro and a taste for Robert Altman movies. Lionel watches everyone without really fitting in anywhere, until he finds a niche of his own.

Simien includes a fair amount of what you might call cultural confusion. Black students reject stereotypes, but often find themselves attracted to things they may think they should be avoiding.

At one point, Sam -- a film student who made a satirical short called Rebirth of a Nation -- is called out for listening to Taylor Swift.

Kyle Gallner plays the most obnoxious character, another child of the school president. Gallner's Kurt Fletcher also heads the campus humor magazine.

It's a little difficult to believe that two of the school president's kids are involved in the plot, but Simien uses these young people to point out disparities (some petty, some not) between black and white students.

Simien probably takes aim at too many targets, including mainstream cinema, which doesn't make much room for black stories that aren't either historical or hood-based, but this is a first feature and you can forgive Simien's need say as much as he can.

The story culminates with a fight at a costume party at which white students don blackface and mimic black styles (or their idea of black styles) which they seem to find amusing.

Although all of the main characters have their own arc, it's pretty clear by the end of the movie that the circumstances in which they're struggling with identity issues haven't changed much.

Watching Simien's Dear White People, I couldn't help thinking back to Spike Lee's School Daze, which dealt with students at a black college. That movie came out in 1988.

Twenty-six years later, along comes another talented filmmaker to take our racial pulse, and remind us that it's still subject to an irregular beat -- sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hurtful, but one we definitely shouldn't ignore.

'Birdman' tries to ruffle lots of feathers

A vibrantly presented world, but what's there to care about?.
If you've been following this year's film festival news, you know that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman -- or more pretentiously Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance -- has taken flight in critical circles.

Michael Keaton, who hasn't occupied center stage in a movie for a while, has received raves for portraying a washed-up movie star trying to make a comeback on Broadway.

And even those who've objected to Inarritu's cacophonous, multi-story approach in 21 Grams and Babel seem to regard Birdman as a striking improvement.

I begin this way because Birdman arrives with a cache that proclaims the film a brilliant riff on celebrity, movies, stardom and heaven knows what else.

Obviously, I wouldn't have mentioned any of this unless I intended to take a different -- and less effusive -- tack.

Creative, willing to plunge into fantasy without apology or explanation and sharply acted, Birdman resembles, as someone has pointed out, a high-wire act -- except (and here's the rub) the wire might be located no more than two feet off the ground.

Put another way, Birdman has its virtues, but revovles around a less-than-riveting question: Can a movie star we don't particuarly like and with whom we may not identify earn a reputation as a credible actor?

Keaton portrays Riggan Thomas an actor who made his mark playing a superhero called Birdman. Thomas ditched the franchise, but eventually fell into hard times. Now, his money and self-respect are running out.

To redeem his reputation, Riggan has written a play, an adpation of a Raymond Carver story called What We Talk About When We Talk abokut Love. What rides on the play's success? For Riggan: Everything. For us? Much less.

Keaton does a fine job playing a man who's plummeting even as he's trying to take flight. Riggan is tormented by the blatant commericalism of his past success; his box-office triumphs drag on him like an anchor.

But even in a comedy this caustic, it would be nice to give a damn about whether Riggan saved himself or not. I can't say that I did.

Riggan fights an internal battle, even as he faces various obstacles that threaten his play. He often hears the voice of his Birdman character, either berating him for his failures or reminding him that he could (and should) reclaim his place as a bona fide movie star who doesn't need the pipsqueak acclaim of the New York theater crowd.

Working with the gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity and The Tree of Life), Inarritu employs a ferociously mobile camera as he attempts to make it seem as if the entire story is unfolding in a single take, an approach that's augmented by Antonio Sanchez's solo drum score. It's a feat of sorts, but put to what end?

OK, so Keaton played Batman, and stopped playing Batman. For some, this shard of show-business reality adds resonance to Inarritu's movie, but I can't imagine anyone confusing Keaton with the character he's playing.

Most of the story takes place in the tumultuous days before the play's opening: Among Riggan's problems: A cast member has been struck on the head by a stage light that detached from its moorings.

Riggan, who's both starring in and directing the play, hires a replacement, an apparently well-regarded theatrical actor (Edward Norton), a performer whose attempts to find realism in everything he plays reaches ludicrous levels.

Norton finds comedy in the self-inflation of a talented actor who believes that he's fighting a lonely battle to save the culture.

Also along for what's mostly a backstage ride is Riggan's daughter (Emma Stone). She's fresh from rehab and almost always in couldn't-care-less mode.

Stone has a power moment when her character tells her father that nothing about him matters, and he'd best get used to it. Stone then shows us -- as anger drains from her face -- that she realizes she may have gone too far.

We also meet an actress who's finally realizing her dream of appearing on Broadway (Naomi Watts).Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan's attorney and principal advisor, a mostly exasperated fellow who's constantly trying to save Riggan from himself.

Low-grade contempt runs through the entire movie -- for Hollywood and its blockbuster lust, for actors who either are portrayed as deeply insecure or phenomenal twits and for the audience, which is left to ponder the meaning of realistically presented images in which Riggan moves objects with his mind. Power fantasies from a man who seems to control nothing?

The screenplay tosses in some additional characters, notably Thomas' former wife (Amy Ryan) and his actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). Early on, she tells Riggan that she's pregnant, the last bit of news someone in his precarious position needs to hear.

Much of the movie is marked by scorn, but Inarritu really forces his point when we meet the drama critic for The New York Times (Lindsay Duncan). She insists that she's going to destroy the play, even though she hasn't seen it.

Why? Because she detests everything that Riggan stands for; i.e., Hollywood commercialism. Even in a movie with satirical aspirations, it's just another cheap shot.

Look, Inarritu's clearly trying to push his movie out of the usual big-screen comfort zones. But I found Birdman to be marching to a drumbeat of self-absorption, and for all of its agitated craft, it's not without dull spots.

Birdman is about the ways in which artists risk everything and bystanders (and critics) risk nothing. With all humility, I'd say that real risk takers don't feel the need to point out that they're laying everything on the line. They just do it.

You can spend a lot of time deconstructing Birdman, but you may find that once you've done with the exercise, you haven't arrived anywhere that deeply matters.

Drumming to beat the band

Whiplash has enough energy to stock 10 movies.
I've always thought of jazz as an art form that allowed skilled, disciplined musicians a great measure of freedom. But jazz -- like just about everything else -- has been transformed by time and social change.

Music once was mastered in clubs and learned from other musicians now can be studied in conservatory-like situations where highly motivated young people pursue jazz with the zeal and determination you'd expect to find among a group of Harvard MBA candidates.

That's the environment we find ourselves in Whiplash, an exciting and sometimes disturbing debut feature from Damien Chazelle, a director who obtains fine performances from Miles Teller as Andrew, an aspiring jazz drummer, and from J.K. Simmons as Fletcher, an unapologetically judgmental and sometimes sadistic teacher.

Simmons, who portrays Fletcher as if he were a Marine Corps drill instructor, hasn't had this kind of a badass role since he portrayed white supremacist Vern Schillinger on HBO's Oz.

If ever a teacher could create performance anxiety in his charges, it's Fletcher. He leads the school's prestigious first-string jazz band, and takes pride in its ability to win just about every competition it enters.

Teller's Andrew desperately wants to find a place in Fletcher's world. He's the kind of driven kid who'll practice until his hands bleed. He sweats and drums himself to the point of exhaustion. When Andrew plays, it feels as if we're watching an action movie.

Fletcher specializes in pushing his students' buttons, learning about their personal lives and using information he acquires to test their ability to withstand public humiliation. He's quick to make fun of Andrew's English teacher father (Paul Reiser), calling him a failed writer, for example. Simmons sarcastic tirades include a repertoire of homophobic slurs, delivered by him without an apparent second thought.

All of this makes Fletcher frightening. He can be sympathetic when he chooses to be, but he'll turn brutal in a minute, presumably to spur his charges to higher levels of performance.

In a way, Fletcher is a second and much tougher father than Andrew's biological father, who raised the boy alone and seems to display (heaven help him) a degree of sensitivity. Andrew's mom left when he was quite young.

Teller shows us some of Andrew's vulnerability, but he also can be cocky. Andrew grows in confidence as the movie progresses, even dumping his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) because he knows she'll want more from him than he's willing to give. Nothing takes precedence over drumming.

Of course, there would be no movie if Chazelle didn't build toward a major clash, and when it arrives, it hits the screen with near-explosive force.

I don't know exactly what Chazelle intended, but it's striking to see jazz as a kind of competitive, striver's pursuit for young men, most of them white.

Whatever the movie's messages (intended and unintended), the duel between Simmons and Teller proves mesmerizing, as is the music of Justin Hurwitz, who wrote original numbers for the movie, which also makes use of such jazz classics as Duke Ellington's Caravan.

The idea that artistic excellence can't be achieved without this kind of torment may be baloney. The movie's notion that greatness can be tortured out of students isn't likely to win many converts.

But I wouldn't miss the battle waged by Andrew and his mentor. It's not just about musicians pushing themselves; it's about actors pushing themselves and about the desire to stand-out from the anonymous crowd.

When it's done, you may find yourself arguing with Whiplash, but you won't be able to ignore a movie that feels every bit as driven as its characters.

Bullets fly in 'John Wick'

Keanu Reeves seeks a mega helping of vengeance in John Wick.
In the movies, hitmen seldom retire to lives of leisurely bliss.

So we're not especially surprised when John Wick -- an assassin and the newly widowed title character of a new movie starring Keanu Reeves -- is pushed back into action.

We are a bit surprised, though, when (and I include this spoiler for the benefit of pet lovers), the dog his late wife gave him to help with grieving is killed by the sadistic son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian crime czar (Michael Nyqvist).

You can do a lot to a guy, but kill his dog? That's a major no-no.

John Wick, which was directed by Chad Stahelski, is a movie aimed at piling up box-office receipts as fast as falling bodies -- and lots of bodies bite the dust in a frenzied helping of violence that harkens back to some of the Hong Kong bloodbaths of the '80s and '90s. Think John Woo, only without as much style and without Chow Yun-Fat.

Reeves has been surrounded by a supporting cast that knows how to sell this kind of brutal gruel. Nyqvist has fun as the apparently judicious father of a son who believes he owns the world, and Willem Dafoe shows up as another hitman.

Plentiful fight sequences are well-orchestrated by Stahelski, who knows how to fulfill genre obligations.

John Wick is the kind of guilty pleasure that takes us back to grindhouse days, and I have no problem with that.

A wish, though: I wish that Reeves could bring at least a hint of subtext to the role. His character may triumph in the end, but the actors playing the bad guys have Reeves beat by a mile.

Things go topsy turvy in this asylum

A great cast tackles melodrama in Stonehearst Asylum.
Taking its cue from an Edgar Allan Poe story, Stonehearst Asylum makes literal use of an oft-posed question: What might happen if the inmates took over the asylum?

Although the movie's answer hardly qualifies as profound, its high-grade cast -- particularly Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and David Thewlis -- seems to be having a good time with a Gothic tale set at the dawn of the 20th Century.

The movie wastes no time establishing a creepy atmosphere. Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at spooky Stonehearst Asylum to serve a residency as a staff psychiatrist, known in this movie as an "alienist."

Thrown off guard by caretaker Mickey Finn (Thewlis), Newgate is further flummoxed by the asylum's weirdly imperious superintendent, Dr. Silas Lamb (Kingsley).

Dr. Lamb believes that it's better to allow patients to follow their madness than to treat them abusively.

I doubt you'll be surprised when Dr. Newgate discovers that the patients have revolted and thrown the real staff into the asylum's dungeon.

The point: 19th century methods for treating the insane constituted a cruel and inhuman form of punishment. The staff, led by Caine's character, deserves to be punished.

That message plays second fiddle to the mixture of melodrama and macabre comedy that director Brad Anderson serves up -- with particular help from an acerbic and slightly unhinged Kingsley.

Also clear from the outset is Northgate's infatuation with a supposedly dangerous but beautiful patient (Kate Beckinsale), a hysteric who freezes when touched.

The movie's over-the-top and self-consciously melodramatic approach (cue the thunder!) works well enough, until final scenes engulf the screen in flames.

Warning: Caine's role is small. Same goes for Brendan Gleeson, who appears at the movie's beginning and at its end.

If you're looking for horror, look elsewhere: Stonehearst Asylum isn't particularly scary, but its production values are strong, and there's something to be said for watching a grade A cast take a bumpy journey through B-movie terrain.

He's caught in a trap

A challenging French thriller with passion at its core.
Sometimes, a movie should be welcomed for what it doesn't say as much as for what it articulates.

That may be the case with The Blue Room, an uneasy and ambiguous thriller starring and directed by Mathieu Amalric, the French actor who may be best known to American audiences for his performance in 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

You'll find none of the insistent daring that marks a movie such as The Birdman. Nor will you find the kind of sharply obvious ironies that were etched into much of Gone Girl.

But Amalric's movie struck me as every bit as daring as either of those movies.

From the disturbing asymmetry of its images to a collection of characters who won't be pinned down, The Blue Room qualifies as one of the year's stand-out entertainments.

The story begins in a hotel where Esther (Stephanie Cleau) and Julien (Amalric) are having an apparently torrid affair.

To emphasize the ferocious physicality of their attraction, Esther bites Julien's lip. A drop of blood falls on a white sheet. I can't remember whether this was before or after Esther opened her legs and briefly revealed her public mysteries to the camera.

The term "Hitchcockian" has suffered from critical over-exposure, but it's appropriately applied to a movie in which otherwise banal sights can be made to feel creepy or at least unsettling.

Among those sights: Julien's sleek modern home in the French countryside where he lives with his wife (Lea Drucker) and his daughter (Mona Jaffart).

Yes, both Julien and Esther are married, which adds a discomfiting element to their affair.

Esther, we learn, is married to the town pharmacist, a wealthy fellow who we never meet, but who will turn up dead before the movie's done.

Amalric keeps us off guard by parcelling out the story in the form of flashbacks that are revealed as Julien is questioned by the police and later by a judge (Laurent Poitrenaux) about his wife's death.

Esther and Julien are being charged with murder, making us wonder whether they contrived to eliminate both their spouses so that they could live together.

Take special note of the dismissive deftness with which Amalric handles the late-picture courtroom scenes; they're dispatched with briefly, almost as if he's sweeping them past us with a broom.

That's as it should be: The Blue Room isn't about guilt or innocence -- at least not the kind that can be determined in courtrooms.

Both Esther and Julien's wife Delphine remain mysterious. We wonder if Esther might be cunning or even insane. Delphine always seems to play her cards close to the vest. We're not sure how much she knows.

Julien, on the other hand, seems increasingly exposed, a confused man who -- like many film noir figures -- doesn't quite know how he ended up where he is.

I can help: He's in the middle of a thriller that poses more questions than it's willing to answer -- and is all the better for it.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stuck in the mud of war

Brad Pitt leads a tank crew in a movie full of harrowing war imagery.
By April of 1945, U.S. troops had advanced deep into German territory. For Germany, the war already was lost. Humiliation and surrender loomed.

Despite being set on the eve of the impending Allied triumph, the mood of director David Ayer's Fury remains forbidding and dark. Seldom has victory looked quite this grim.

If there's freshness in Ayer's approach, it's found just here: It doesn't really matter whether soldiers are fighting on the first or last day of a war: Many will die. Brutality doesn't stop just because the end is near.

The opening image of Ayer's movie has a haunting, nearly surreal quality. A German soldier rides a white horse onto an open field. We don't know where the soldier's headed or why he's on horse back.

Seconds later, a lone figure springs from a U.S. tank. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) leaps on the German officer, pulls him off his horse and stabs him to death.

In one image, Ayer vanquishes any thoughts we might have had about the romance of war.

Fury offers lots more unsettling imagery, sights presumably intended to make us see the war with fresh eyes, to absorb its intensity and fear in ways that we haven't yet experienced. To say Fury has a kind of bleak power may sound like a turn-off, but that's precisely what we're supposed to feel with a movie such as this.

Pitt's performance as an Army sergeant in charge of a war-weary tank crew inevitably will remind audiences of the character he played in Inglourious Basterds, but Pitt's Collier is more complex than Lt. Aldo Raine.

A hardened veteran, Collier parcels out his human impulses sparingly, almost as if he's afraid of tapping out an already depleted supply.

The rest of Collier's crew consists of Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady "Coon Ass" Travis (John Bernthal). Scott Eastwood portrays Sergeant Miles, another member of the crew.

The plot -- hardly a groundbreaker -- begins when a newbie (Logan Lerman) joins Collier's tank crew in what seems a desperate or possibly haphazard move by the Army.

Lerman's Norman Ellison has spent most of the war as a clerk typist. He has no tank training, and makes a reluctant warrior, someone whose unwillingness to kill is seen as a threat by his comrades in arms.

Much of the story involves the ways in which Lerman's character is toughened -- at first against his will and later with vengeful relish.

In Ayer's world, the members of the tank crew are bonded, but they're not always admirable. Bernthal's Travis can seem like a borderline sadist. So does Collier, at times.

The point, of course, is that the savagery of war tends to turn men into brutes regardless of what uniform they happen to be wearing.

The actors all mold their performances to fit the dreary, mud-soaked landscapes that become another character in the hands of cinematographer Roman Vasyanov.

The movie offers up equal amounts of combat and desperation, although there's an interlude in which Collier and Ellison enter the apartment of a couple of German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg). The soldiers are in a town that just has been taken. Some of them are looking for sex and spoils.

At first, the scene humanizes Collier, but there's a terrible, growing tension when the rest of the tank crew shows up, wondering why they've been excluded from what appears to be a moment's pleasure and respite.

Ayer made his cinematic bones with viscerally charged movies such as End of Watch, which focused on cops in South Central Los Angeles. He makes full use of his talent for violent immediacy here, bringing it to scene-after-scene.

Fury also reminds us that shocking sights can become routine if seen in abundance: Dead bodies are flatted by tank treads, and the ugliness of war unfolds under dark, apprehensive skies.

The movie's finale involves a terrible battle in which Collier's crew (unbelievably, I think) decides to face an entire SS battalion, a decision that's tantamount to a death sentence. Is it courage or a death wish from soldiers who know they'll never again adjust to normal life? Will anyone survive?

When stripped of all its grim atmospherics, Fury may not seem radically different from lots of other war movies that follow small groups of men into the teeth of war.

But story arc may not be the point here: Ayer seems to be trying to give us a more vividly disturbing picture than the one sometimes associated with the so-called Greatest Generation.

With hindsight, idealism may be possible. On the battlefield, it's a forgotten luxury.

The salvation of a nasty old man

Bill Murray is at his scuzzy best in St. Vincent, but too much sentiment diminishes his accomplishment..
When we talk about movies that canonize their characters, we're usually talking metaphorically. Although St. Vincent, which stars Bill Murray, doesn't actually confer sainthood on the character Murray plays, it comes as close as possible without submitting its case to the Vatican, complete with two certified miracles.

Murray, who can look disheveled even when he's standing still, plays a man on the verge of dereliction. Financial troubles have put Murray's Vincent in danger of losing his Brooklyn home. But it doesn't look as if Vincent would need much by way of external pressure to have him heading for the local saloon or the race track.

Desperate for money, Vincent agrees to babysit for a kid who just has moved next door (Jaeden Lieberher). Newly separated from her husband, the boy's mother (Melissa McCarthy) knows no one in her new neighborhood and must rely on the acerbic Vincent for help.

So will a cute and very bright boy worm his way into Vincent's cold heart?

Come on, it's a movie, and no matter how gruff Murray plays Vincent, we know from the outset that he'll eventually prove himself to be a decent enough fellow.

The movie wastes little time reassuring us that hard-ass Vincent has a good side: Fairly early on, Vincent is shown visiting his wife in the upscale nursing facility where he's struggling to keep her.

Murray makes it touchingly clear that Vincent loves this woman, who's evidently stricken with Alzheimer's. Perhaps Vincent's life started its down-hill plummet when his wife was institutionalized.

Occasionally, Vincent has sex with a pregnant Russian pole-dancer and prostitute (Naomi Watts). He treats her with scorn, but we know that when the chips are down, he'll come through for her, too.

Late in the movie, Vincent suffers a stroke, which pushes him into disability territory, and perhaps opens an Oscar path for Murray.

It's clear that Murray, who knows how to play nasty, could have made a sentiment-free movie about a man who's going to spend the rest of his life stewing in his beer.

But director Theodore Melfi doesn't have the stomach for flat-out misery, and he pushes the film toward an ending that shamelessly tugs at happily-ever-after heart strings.

Murray keeps St. Vincent watchable, and it's refreshing to see McCarthy play a character who's not cut from the same crude cloth that seems to have characterized most of her work since Bridesmaids (2011).

Still, the main reason to see St. Vincent is to savor of the bitter tastes Murray brings to this character and to imagine the hard-bitten movie that could have been.

In the end, though, St. Vincent's sweet-and-sour mix doesn't totally compute: It's like getting a sappy Valentine's card from Charles Bukowski.