Bill Murray and Robert Downey Jr. at TIFF with ‘St. Vincent’ and ‘The Judge’
It’s a weird thing to openly root for a movie that you find yourself not enjoying. This is how I felt while watching Bill Murray in ‘St. Vincent’ on the second day of the Toronto International Film Festival. I can’t be the only one who does this, right? It’s a situation in which you deeply admire the actors in a movie – in this case, Murray and Melissa McCarthy – and for the first, say, 45 minutes, you’re trying to convince yourself what you’re watching is “good.”
That’s not to say Murray and McCarthy aren’t good in ‘St. Vincent' -- they are; both are very good -- it’s just the story around them that isn’t. Look at how I’m even writing this review so far: I’m trying my best to concentrate on the positives because, even now, deep in my subconscious, I still really want ‘St. Vincent’ to work. I still want Bill Murray to get that Oscar that he has so desperately wanted since he starred in ‘Lost in Translation’ eleven years ago. I want to be wrong about ‘St. Vincent.’
Murray stars as Vincent, a seemingly cranky, awful man -- he has gambling debts! he sleeps with a prostitute! -- with a thick New York accent (which takes a few minutes to get used to). Vincent soon befriends his new neighbor’s son, Oliver (played by a dialed down Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher, respectively) and you may be able to guess what happens to Vincent’s hard knocks demeanor once he starts spending some time with Oliver. Oh, sure, Vincent winds up taking Oliver to bars and to horse races, but Vincent’s salty edge starts to break down after the two begin to bond. Oliver learns how to defend himself against bullies in school, while Vincent learns how to act like a human being again. Yes, you are right if you think all of this sounds familiar. It is familiar. (There is one spoilerish plot point in ‘St. Vincent’ that is decidedly not familiar, but it is so out of the blue and seems to leave no repercussions, it was this point that ‘St. Vincent’ lost me for good.)
Checking the online reactions to ‘St. Vincent’ after its TIFF premiere, I was shocked by how many people adored this movie. I also felt strangely happy about this. I hope people do like ‘St. Vincent,’ because it’s impossible to root against Bill Murray. And ‘St. Vincent’ certainly has its moments – who doesn’t want to watch Bill Murray dance to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’? – the whole thing just feels empty and ridiculous.
The last time we watched Robert Downey Jr.-- another actor we find ourselves rooting for -- in a movie that wasn’t Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes (save for a cameo in Jon Favreau’s ‘Chef’) was in the forgettable 2010 movie, ‘Due Date.’ Since the first ‘Iron Man’ movie, Robert Downey Jr. has become one of the biggest stars on the planet. But something seems a little hollow about all of this because it’s based pretty much solely on the success of his interpretation of Tony Stark. Downey is returning for the ensemble ‘Avengers’ movies, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever do an ‘Iron Man 4.’ After watching ‘The Judge,’ I hope he doesn’t do an ‘Iron Man 4.’ It’s almost a travesty that we are in the midst of Downey’s full powers as an actor and all we are getting is (the admittedly enjoyable) ‘Iron Man’ movies and forgettable movies like ‘Due Date’ and, now, ‘The Judge.’
If ‘The Judge’ starred anyone but Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, it would have a good chance at being a downright awful movie. (Luckily for ‘The Judge,’ and as you can tell from the movie poster, both of those actors are in this movie.)
In the film, Downey plays hotshot lawyer named Hank Palmer. (Downey is very good at playing a hotshot, so much show that I hope he one days plays a character named Hot Shot.) After the death of his mother, Hank returns home to Indiana to his somewhat estranged family and certainly estranged father, Joe Palmer, who is a local small town judge (Robert Duvall). The night of the funeral, the senior Palmer is involved in a hit-and-run accident on the way back from a mini mart, which lands the judge on trial for murder, which seems preposterous in every way. (The victim was a man who Joe Palmer let off easy once, who then went on to kill his girlfriend. The prosecution contends that Palmer was seeking his own justice here by running this man over with his Cadillac on a dark, rainy night. Whatever.)
Anyway, ‘The Judge’ is barely the point of any of this. (For the record, ‘The Judge’ will one day be a great basic cable movie that can be left on in the background during a nap or while paying the bills, or whatever.) The point is Downey. Downey makes even a movie as ham-fisted as ‘The Judge’ watchable, and it’s impossible to not wonder what else Downey could be doing at this point other than dressing up like Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes. And Downey’s not dumb, he knows that without Iron Man he wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. And that’s true. But as an audience, it’s fun to watch Downey chew scenery in something new, even if that “something new” is in a movie as forgettable as ‘The Judge.’
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.