It is inevitable that at some point during the charming and crowded comedic drama that is St. Vincent, the film will win you over. More precisely, the incomparable Bill Murray will win you over. For everything else, all the tangential storylines, caricatures, and swelling emotions, are secondary.
It may be when he drives over his own fence late one night, or the first time he scoffs at his neighbours, or later still when he takes a prepubescent boy to the race track, but you will, maybe even begrudgingly, give yourself over to his misanthropic charm. That, I promise you. Incidentally, there has been a clip released from the film that has no bearing on the story whatsoever and is shown during the credits, and its presence guarantees you’ll be smiling, even if it takes the epilogue to do so.
Murray is the titular Vincent, a cankerous old sot set in his self-destructive ways and possessive of a rather thick Brooklyn accent. Among the list of indecent activities he engages in are soliciting prostitute, gambling, and drinking to excess. He’s also cheap, selfish, deceitful, and not the least bit neighbourly. This is all what we learn initially, so of course we will get to slowly find out what’s underneath, as surely he can’t be some scrooge (for one, he already played that role). To start, he’s a war veteran, so he’s certainly not all bad.
The catalyst for such a predictable revelation comes in the form of 12-year-old neighbor Oliver. A less than ideal meeting finds Vincent yelling at Oliver’s mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) while being casually racist. But when this hard-working mother suddenly requires a babysitter, Vincent is thrust into action. Reluctantly, and for a price, of course.
Facing off against Murray is newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, a precocious youngster, a scrawny, wide-eyed observer of the world. Oliver is smarter than he gives on and thankfully not influenced by Vincent’s vices – only his virtues.
So goes an utterly mediocre story about an unlikely mentor helping out a kid in need of some street smarts and real world guidance. Comedy arrives frequently from a lot of different places, and it’s surely to Murray’s credit, though Chris O’Dowd as Oliver’s ‘religious’ school teacher is hilarious in each of his brief appearances.
O’Dowd’s Father Gregory is one of the several ancillary characters that at times entertain and also distracts, but all are in the service of sculpting the character of Vincent. Naomi Watts dons a Russian accent and sheds a bit of clothing as Daka, that sort of idealized Hollywood hooker, a determined and confident lady of the night that longs to be a mother. Vincent is a frequent employer of hers, but again, because this is meant to show Vincent as a miscreant but still loveable, their relationship is seen more as companionship than something sexual.
Another supporting figure comes in the form of Terrance Howard’s Zucko, Vincent’s ominous bookie and collector of many, many debts. Other than Vincent’s physical health – he drinks, he smokes, and sometimes passes out hitting his head – Zucko presents really the only looking threat in the film. Then there is McCarthy, who rarely gets a chance to be funny and is instead resigned to be the stereotypical single-mother, stressing about work and her ex-husband’s fight for Oliver’s custody.
That this is a PG-13 movie from The Weinstein Company is a rather telling indication of not so much the degree to which Vincent is a sordid character, but the way in which events are depicted and the finale plays out. It’s all meant to eventually make you feel warm and fuzzy while making you laugh and occasionally pause, and everything comes with soft edges. That’s why you get a Watts as a prostitute without any sex. And a bookie, albeit a menacing one (because Howard can do that pretty well), that fades into the background when things start to get troubling for Vincent.
In exchange for such mainstream middlebrow, you also get a very well-executed film that never lags and is full of excess: excess jokes, music, characters, plotlines, and charm.
In all, it’s a neatly-crafted and particularly well-written story by Theodore Melfi, a man making his directorial feature and screenwriting debut with an impressive cast and a lot of juggling required (Murray may or may not be a handful, but Melfi’s also in charge of a kid acting in his first role as well as a cat, because Vincent has to have a cat as grumpy as him). While too neat and with an ending that is especially convenient and just a tad emotionally-manipulative, St. Vincent pokes and prods just enough to make you laugh, recoil, and maybe even feel your heart warm – just like Vincent.
Despite being a cursory tale, St. Vincent succeeds because of Bill Murray, whose wit and humanity propel an entertaining film above its predictable and convenient template.