CIFF 2014 Centerpieces: “The Last 5 Years” and “St. Vincent”

Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in Richard LaGravenese’s “The Last 5 Years.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in Richard LaGravenese’s “The Last 5 Years.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Amidst the weighty topics and stark realism permeating this year’s selections at the Chicago International Film Festival are two fairly lightweight crowd-pleasers boasting big names, bouncy soundtracks and red carpet appearances from their directors. I had a mixed reaction to both pictures, though they both have their pleasures, and one of them actually caused me to spontaneously applaud during a press screening (which I believe may be the first time that’s ever happened). So I suppose there’s something to be said for that.

“The Last 5 Years” adapts James Robert Brown’s musical, which premiered in 2001 at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, for the big screen. The writer/director is Richard LaGravenese, the screenwriter of “The Fisher King,” “A Little Princess,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” and most importantly, “The Ref,” the acid-tongued holiday favorite in which Kevin Spacey’s emasculated family man gives his manipulative mother (former “Mary Poppins” suffragette Glynis Johns) an immortal put-down: “You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.” Though “5 Years” is more reminiscent of sentimental LaGravenese productions such as “P.S. I Love You” and his “Paris, je t’aime” segment with Bob Hoskins, its best moments are peppered with acerbic yet playful wit that delivers a real kick when married with Brown’s dizzyingly inventive ballads.

Nearly all of the dialogue is sung in this 90-minute relationship drama, which moves “Memento”-style through the ecstatic peaks and wrenching deterioration of a young couple’s five-year-long relationship. It’s no surprise to reveal that they break up—the film opens with struggling actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) lamenting that her husband, hotshot author Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), has left her for good. Their melancholy love story would’ve been more compelling if its downfall didn’t hinge merely on Jamie’s repellant self-involvement and pathetic inability to remain faithful to his wife. “I won’t lose because you can’t win!” he shouts at Cathy during a well-choreographed verbal brawl, revealing himself to be little more than a philandering douche. Jordan is solid if a touch too slick, but it’s Kendrick who people will be raving about upon leaving the theater. Not many people can tearfully emote and sing on-key convincingly, and Kendrick puts the entire cast of Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” to shame—she even calls out Russell Crowe during her hilarious inner monologue at an audition scene (thus earning my applause)—one of many tour de forces in this film from the Oscar-nominated actress. Though the movie concludes on a somber note, there’s no doubt in my mind that the ending is a happy one. The gal is WAY better off without that airbrushed cad.

Screens Wednesday, October 15th at 6pm. Director Richard LaGravenese is scheduled to attend. For tickets, click here.

Jaeden Lieberher and Bill Murray in Theodore Melfi’s “St. Vincent.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Jaeden Lieberher and Bill Murray in Theodore Melfi’s “St. Vincent.” Courtesy of CIFF.

And now we’re faced with the latest chapter in the cinematic saga of Bill Murray, a once uproarious deadpan genius who has gradually morphed into a minimalist presence fit for Robert Bresson. Was his catatonia brought on by his loss to Sean Penn at the Oscars a decade ago (he sure was miffed)? Or is he simply more interested in dialing back his familiar mannerisms to avoid becoming a stale caricature? Whatever his reasons, Murray has certainly emerged as one of the most intriguing people in the business, though I’ve found much of his recent work rather empty and more than a little overpraised.

Theodore Melfi’s feature directorial debut, “St. Vincent,” would’ve been a star vehicle tailor-made for the exuberantly cantankerous Murray of “Groundhog Day” (still his best film, by far). But that man, alas, is long gone, and the guy occupying the screen here is so restrained and despondent that when his character suffers a stroke, it’s barely noticeable. Even during the big, “Mr. Holland’s Opus”-style tear-jerker of a climax, he remains as dry as sandpaper. That isn’t to say his performance is bad—it’s actually his best since 2005’s “Broken Flowers”—but it’s out of step with everything that surrounds it. The entire film is an unabashedly calculated feel-good charmer populated by two-dimensional cartoons that seem all the phonier when juxtaposed with Murray’s sullen war vet. He makes Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” look like Richard Attenborough in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Not even the cute kid next door (played by cute newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) can diminish his crustiness, aside from eliciting the occasional grin, which looks as unnatural on Murray as it did on Wednesday Addams.

To be fair, Lieberher and Melissa McCarthy, as his overworked mother, are genuinely endearing even as their characters are forced to speak in sitcom punchlines. Less successful are Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian prostitute straight out of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and Terrence Howard doing his moist-eyed shtick while brandishing a gun. The film’s first major laughs are elicited by Chris O’Dowd’s progressive Catholic school teacher, who would’ve easily walked away with the picture had he not been subsequently tasked to simply shout plot points directly into the lens while articulating the meaning of the film’s title with all the subtlety of a neon yellow marker. I especially winced at the saccharine treatment of the standard bully subplot where the little hero breaks his tormentor’s nose and they instantly become Best Of Friends. This is essentially a PG-rated family flick with a pottymouth, and though Murray and Lieberher’s chemistry is enjoyable, it pales in comparison to the comedic sparks between Walter Matthau and Murray’s “Rushmore” co-star Mason Gamble in Nick Castle’s “Dennis the Menace.” That may have been a cheap “Home Alone” knockoff, but it had a lot more laughs.

Screens Wednesday, October 15th at 8:15pm. Director Theodore Melfi is scheduled to attend. For tickets, click here.

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