Thunder and lightning and a sudden rainstorm couldn’t dampen the spirits of moviegoers as the Toronto Film Festival provided a change of pace Friday night with the world premiere of The Weinstein Company’s October release, St. Vincent. Starring Bill Murray in the best performance of his career and 11-year-old newcomer Jaeden Lieberher in the best kid role of the year, this pure family film (although rated PG-13) is about a young child of divorce who finds a companion in the off-kilter Vietnam vet who lives next door. It’s the rare movie comedy that proves the spirit of Frank Capra lives on. In an era when the entire world seems in chaos, this is a movie that makes you feel good about yourself when you leave the theater. When was the last time that happened?
If ever a movie deserved the phrase, St. Vincent is a film that will make audiences feel great about going to the movies again. It won an enthusiastic standing ovation from the packed crowd at the Princess Of Wales theater. With a perfectly chosen cast including Melissa McCarthy in an understated role for a change, Naomi Watts (wonderful in a change of pace) as a Russian “woman of the night,” and a hilarious Chris O’Dowd as a Catholic School teacher, this film manages to be a true heart-warmer without dwelling in sentimentality. Murray — and the film — will certainly be nominated for Golden Globe awards in the Comedy or Musical category, but if all goes well, this movie could also be in the Oscar contest too — à la what happened a couple of years ago with Silver Linings Playbook for the Weinsteins.
TWC seems to be using that playbook for this one. Certainly Harvey Weinstein realizes what he has here, even if Fox passed originally when it was approached with this material from former studio head Peter Chernin, who produced this (along with partner Jenno Topping) and another TIFF world premiere tonight, the excellent crime melodrama The Drop which Fox Searchlight is indeed releasing next Friday.
When I suggested to Harvey Weinstein that St. Vincent just might be able to sneak into the Academy race, he immediately cut me off not wanting hear it at this point. “We made it just to be a good movie,” he said, adding that they just want to get this one open, and they will do that on a platform basis beginning October 10th before going wide on the 24th. It’s a first feature film for writer/director Theodore Melfi, who told me the idea came partially from his own life. Murray is irresistible in a role he (jokingly?) says he got because he says Melfi “couldn’t get Jack Nicholson.” Murray was clearly in a good mood, dancing at the after-party until near-closing. He should be. It was the grand culmination to TIFF’s unusual “Bill Murray Day,” in which screenings were held of Ghostbusters, Stripes and Groundhog Day. Murray appeared on stage during the film’s intro wearing a crown.
Melfi was very high on Murray no matter how the casting came about. “I think that Bill is one of the few, if not the only actor I know who can be disagreeable and lovable all at the same moment all the time,” he told the crowd at the post-scrreening Q&A. Murray said the key to the film’s success was to avoid being over-schmaltzy and not to overcook everything. “I’m really so proud of the work everyone did. I was slobbering and I knew how it was going to end,” he said. McCarthy agreed that it was important to keep it real. “We didn’t want to push too hard and make it sentimental. But watiching it, I was kind of a wreck tonight. It’s all kind of underplayed and it seems to hit a little harder because of that,” she said. Watts said playing this very vivid Russian was Weinstein’s idea who called her and asked if she wanted to try something different. And she did. Of the sex scene she has with Murray near the film’s beginning, she was blunt. “I was terrified at the thought of being all over him, and I thought there’s only one way to do this and that’s to terrify him and just try to have fun,” she said. It worked out. She told me at the party this is the kind of movie that’s needed right now. Lieberher is a real find and the director said they cast him out of Los Angeles. He is also in the new Cameron Crowe movie coming out next summer.
Weinstein is starting to look like it might have a very good Fall after the strong response his November 21st release, The Imitation Game, got in Telluride last week. It will also be in Toronto next week as the company learned its lesson from last year and isn’t bringing anything on to the festival circuit that isn’t quite ready for prime time (à la last year’s Toronto premieres of Mandela and August: Osage County before they were completely finished).
In a day of surprises for me at TIFF, I was really impressed as well with Searchlight’s The Drop which had its World Premiere in the same venue just before St. Vincent. I hadn’t been really focused on this one amidst premieres of the bigger Fall titles even though it opens next week. The hard-hitting, but quietly humanistic, crime drama proves one thing definitively: Tom Hardy is the real deal movie star. He just pops off the screen in a magnetic, perfectly pitched performance. Noomi Rapace is also very fine along with Matthias Shcoenaerts who is once again working with his Bullhead director Michael R. Roskam, here making his English language film debut and doing it effortlessly. The movie sadly marks the last screen outing for James Gandolfini, to whom it is dedicated. Roskam made some touching introductory remarks about Gandolfini and noted that his family members including his son were in the audience. Author Dennis Lehane adapted his own short story into this solid screenplay for the film that was very well received by the TIFF first nighters. Fest director Cameron Bailey noted this was one of the first films TIFF saw last Spring as they began to put this year’s schedule together and they knew right away they wanted it to premiere here. It was a smart move. This could be a sleeper.
This festival continues to be almost impossible to navigate if you want to see everything. There’s just too much going on. I was honored to have been asked to moderate TIFF’s first Master Class session this year with director Barry Levinson Thursday morning at the Glenn Gould theater in the CBC building. A packed crowd heard Levinson talk openly and amusingly about his long career which includes his latest film, The Humbling, starring Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig, both terrific opposite each other. That film was also part of TIFF’s opening night festivities playing to a crowd of 1,500 at the Princess Of Wales Thursday night even though The Judge was getting most of the media attention. Levinson said it is a new business now and he made this picture for $2 million, even shooting part of it in his own Connecticut home. He was thrilled with the raucous laughter it received here and hopes to close a domestic distribution deal soon, with at least one offer already on the table for the movie that was produced by Avi Lerner’s Millennium. In an odd way the film, which first World Premiered last week at the Venice Film Festival, is a companion piece to Birdman as both Pacino and Michael Keaton play actors at crossroads in their careers. With Julianne Moore’s aging actress in Maps To The Stars it seems to be a trend.