Grumpy old man meets kid with issues, problems are created, hilarity ensues, lessons are learned, everyone lives happily ever after. It is a tried and trusted formula, a crowd pleaser and rolled out yet again in St. Vincent. Murray plays the title role, a drunk who spends his time at the race track, bar, stripclub, or home with his cat. His only real companion is the pregnant, Russian (necessary?) stripper Daka and that’s pretty much the way he likes it. Until one day when a newly single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12 year old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door. Happenstance throws Vincent and Oliver together and the former, finding himself in need of extra cash, and Maggie having little other option, assumes the role of babysitter. Vincent’s more nefarious tendencies soon begin to influence Oliver but his lessons toughen him up, helping him adjust to his new life away from a philandering father and being in a new school. But his activities and their growing friendship put him on collision course with Maggie and her ex-husband, who is seeking custody.
This is no Bad Santa, it instead veers into the sentimental, heart warming film that many will appeal to most. Theodore Melfi’s first feature is very well put together, the fine line between touching and mawkish trod pretty carefully for the most part but ultimately there is nothing surprising about the feature. Its hits some of the coarser notes, Vincent being a mentor in the Mr. Miyagi mold but rather than teaching Oliver how to “wax on wax off”, he teaches him how to break someone’s nose — a skill the boy soon employs.
The central idea is that Oliver, studying at a Catholic school, is given an assignment, to select someone from his life who should be eligible for Sainthood. Of course by this point it’s obvious he will select his flawed guardian angel Vincent. I must note that if the film is accurate in its portrayal of such banal and frivolous school assignments as well as their timespans, then it is clear why the USA has such issues with its level of education amongst its children. Of course, Vincent has reasons for his behavior, not least an older woman who he visits weekly at a retirement home, these are gradually eked out during the course of the film. While he is the one anointed as “Saint”, the film deftly shows the two way street that showing kindness to another can be. This relationship is the most authentic thing about the film, sadly, forced sentimentality and a safer approach to the story dampens the impact.
The centerpiece of the film of course is Bill Murray. Most of the comedy in the film stems from him, be it from his acerbic attitude or his employment of more physical comedy to get the laughs. He has your attention from the opening joke, a silly tale about painting a porch whose delivery made me laugh probably more than it should have, again, because Murray. What is evident from the film is that is cements what a range he has as an actor and you get the sense he was unshackled during this production. He tackles the melancholy and the anger of this bitter old man as well as he does the comedy. It also helps that he has pretty great chemistry with Lieberher (Oliver) who does impressive work. It’s never overly cute and conveys the weight of his parents’ divorce and subsequent fallout in a very genuine way.
Melissa McCarthy gives a remarkably restrained performance (thankfully). In my eyes she is fast becoming the female Adam Sandler and I mean that in the worst way possible. Her performance is a nice reminder of the subtleties she is capable of. One of the more odd features of the film is the character Daka, played by Naomi Watts; a pregnant stripper who is close to Vincent. Oh and let’s make her Russian as well because we haven’t thrown enough tropes into the film already. A pretty abhorrent accent complements a coarse personality which I’m sure was intended to lighten the tone in some darker parts of the movie, but frankly ends up playing as just a bit odd. Scenes with a semi-clad Watts fitted with a “bump” vacuuming furiously will linger in the mind as long as last year’s sexual assault of a Lamborghini by Cameron Diaz in The Counselor. Disturbing, and not in a good way. Rounding out the cast with another restrained and pretty deadpan performance (Murray takes much of the laughs) is Chris O’Dowd as Oliver’s teacher/Priest. Overall, a talented cast who do well with the material given but it is that same material which really lets the film down.
St. Vincent is a film you know will end tied up neatly with a bow. It is a simple story, told well but with some sentimental and predictable elements. It embraces the themes of redemption and friendship and as mawkish as it gets at times it’s hard to dislike it. While I hoped for more from the film, you get to spend over 100 minutes with Bill Murray in a lead role, its impossible not to appreciate that.