Imagine Herman Blume from “Rushmore” if he were even crankier, broke, drunker and even more irresponsible, and that’s Vincent, played with ease by Bill Murray. Taking the lead in “St. Vincent,” it seems like the role he’s been gearing up to play ever since his career was given an energy boost in Wes Anderson‘s aforementioned film. And the cantankerous, snarky shades he’s applied to films across the past few years get super-sized here, with Murray delivering a performance that seems like a culmination of all that came before. Because of that, it may not be as nuanced as some of his prior efforts, or feature subtle grace notes, but neither does the film. Formulaic, and at times a bit Sundance-by-numbers, it’s still hard to deny that the charms of “St. Vincent” work even if you clearly can see the narrative machinery moving.
Up to his eyeballs in debt with the kind of guys who will hurt you, drowning his sorrows at a local bar, while benevolently screwing Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian prostitute, Vincent is hardly a role model. He’s barely even a good neighbor, already growling at Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) as she moves in next door with her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), in the midst of a divorce. While that sour attitude could be blamed on the movers who knocked over Vincent’s fence, and smashed a branch out of his tree, which then landed on his car, he probably would’ve been just as impolite anyway. But Maggie is forced to rely on Vincent to look after Oliver due to her unexpectedly long hours at the hospital, and an unlikely friendship forms between between the grizzled grump and the precocious kid (though thankfully, just on the right side of tolerable and cutesy know-it-all).
So, do you remember that montage in “The Royal Tenenbaums” when Gene Hackman‘s Royal takes Chas’ kids out for the day, and has them shoplift, watch dogfighting, throw water balloons at cabs and hitch a ride on a garbage truck, among other things? Well, Vincent takes Oliver out on similarly questionable excursions for the middle third of the movie. Whether showing him the ins and outs of betting at the track, teaching him how to fight or taking him to a bar, Vincent has no barometer for what’s age appropriate, or even what his responsibilities should be when taking care of a kid. And yet, a comfort and affection blooms between the pair, even if neither is ready to admit it.
First time writer/director Theodore Melfi certainly gives himself a diverse array of characters to play with and eventually bring together, and mostly manages to keep them from hinging on easily defined quirks. While early on Vincent threatens to become a one note symphony, second act reveals about his past, and a third act turn show deeper layers to the character’s personalty, and played by Murray, he becomes more than just someone who is angry at the world and wants to push it away. And while we’re used to seeing McCarthy go full throttle in her big screen comedies, she has what is largely a straight woman role here. As a harried mom trying to do the right thing, McCarthy pleasantly dials things way down, showing that she has more tricks up her sleeve than just the usual comedic tics (mostly exasperated, foul mouthed yelling) which seem to be growing stale. She has a genuine screen presence, even when she’s not screaming and falling over into something, and it bodes well for a diverse array of roles down the line. Meanwhile, newcomer Lieberher is not only well at ease with co-star Murray, he gives the quip-ready, self-aware and smart kid enough heart that he’s never obnoxious.
While it seems like a makeshift family unit is being pulled together, obstacles arise between Maggie, Oliver and Vincent, but just as quickly, they’re resolved. As said before, there is a predictability to “St. Vincent” that is undeniable, resembling slightly a film in the vein of “Little Miss Sunshine,” in which a differences and pain are put aside for one rousing climactic moment. You’d have to be made of utter stone not to just go along with “St. Vincent” by that point. Melfi certainly doesn’t try to masquerade his movie as anything but a crowd pleaser, and even as inevitable as the finale is, it’s still affecting, not only because actors have spent the whole movie building up to this emotional final sell, but because of a script that gives more complexity to the characters and situations than this type of material usually does. That said, another pass or two on the screenplay could’ve helped.
Unfortunately, Watts’ “lady of the night” Daka is not only mostly extraneous to the story, except to further paint Vincent as an unsavory sort, but the actress is terrible in the part. Employing a clichéd Russian accent that seems like a parody of one (and it should be said Murray’s Sheepshead Bay brogue is not much better), Watts does what she can to bring life to a character but her comedic skills (see “I Heart Huckabees“) aren’t in effect here, and do little to enliven what is the one clunky, unfunny character in the movie. And there are moments, especially in the final third, where “St. Vincent” willfully ignores simple questions of logic, especially as they pertain to the seriously broke old man and certain expenses he racks up (sorry, no spoilers), in favor of the dramedic momentum Melfi achieves.
That’s the key takeaway here. “St. Vincent” goes for feeling, not necessarily truth. These are characters who are on a journey, in a movie world where another wacky adventure is just around the corner, and dramatic twists not too far behind, and neither are anything that can’t be cured with a quick quip or earnest good will. When those types of movies are as well executed as this one is, it’s easy stop niggling about the dropped plot threads, clearly reduced supporting roles (sorry Scott Adsit as Oliver’s Dad; Chris O’Dowd, we wish there was even more of you as Oliver’s teacher) and the simple familiarity of the movie. Sometimes, a story well told is good enough, and this is a yarn that will make you genuinely laugh in the right places, even if the punchlines and plot turns are seen coming from a mile way. [B]