St. Vincent (2014)
Dir: Theodore Melfi
Bill Murray’s place as an American Treasure is undeniable at this point. That status is bolstered not only by a legendary television and film career (which began with SNL and hit 80’s comedies followed by a transition into more dramatic work), but also by his mysterious and cantankerous persona (he’s only reachable by a 1-800 number, he’ll crash random parties, he’ll even approach random strangers on the street and state “No one will ever believe you”). With Murray, you’re never sure what you’re going to get, but at least it’ll be interesting.
There was that time he voiced Garfield in an avaricious feature film adaptation of the Monday-hating cat because he thought it was written by Joel Cohen of Fargo and The Big Lebowski fame (turns out it was an entirely different Joel Cohen, much to Murray’s dismay). But to counter that his stock has risen considerably in the past 15 years thanks to a flourishing artistic relationship with Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and many more) and some measured dramatic turns in seminal art-house films (Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola and Broken Flowers by Jim Jarmusch). All of this begs the question: where on the spectrum between dreck and masterpiece does Murray’s role in St. Vincent fall?
The movie star is definitely at home as the Brooklyn native Vincent – a smoking, drinking, gambling man whose only friends are his fluffy cat Felix (Teddy and Jagger) and his “lady of the night” Daka (Naomi Watts). The accent comes and goes but Murray’s schlubby charm and deadpan demeanour hint at the inevitable heart-of-gold behind Vincent, marking this movie as more about the journey than the destination. That journey begins when harried single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, more restrained than usual) and her precocious 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door to Vincent, knocking over his tree and rousing his anger in the process.
Through a series of events it’s not long before Vincent becomes the de facto afterschool caretaker for Oliver while Maggie works long hours at a hospital. The initial abrasiveness of Vincent (he’s misanthropic, money-obsessed and has a drinking problem for starters) is quickly worn away as Oliver ingratiates himself into Vincent’s lonely, grubby existence and the two begin to learn from one another. For anyone that’s ever seen a movie it’s obvious that two things will happen at some point: the cranky old man will reluctantly open his heart to new relationships while the shy boy will find a much-needed father figure and source of strength. And while entirely predictable from start to finish, much of the movie coasts by on the charm of its cast and setting.
Vincent is never really nasty enough at the beginning to give his character a full arc. He pays working girl Daka for sex, but their relationship is warm and playful. He puts on a tough front for Maggie and Oliver, but harbours an obvious paternal spark. When Vincent visits his alzheimer’s-stricken wife in a home it’s clear he’s a caring man that’s fallen on hard times. The movie draws out this revelation, with Vincent being the last to realize it long after everyone else has.
There’s a litany of sub-plots to move the story forward, many of which don’t come to satisfactory conclusions. Vincent has immense debt from paying his wife’s medical bills and then losing more to gambling, but after some token intimidation from the world’s nicest bookie (Terrence Howard, barely making an impression) those woes seem to disappear entirely. More successful are Oliver’s experiences at school, involving standing up to a bully and learning about saints from his catholic teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd). There’s also Daka’s pregnancy, Maggie’s custody struggles with her ex-husband, some barflies who alternately look out for and chastise Vincent, and Vincent’s own back story as well, leading the film to inelegantly spin so many plates.
While the first half of St. Vincent is given over to good-natured character building (trips to the racetrack, late night bar hopping and fleshing out the dingy Brooklyn world), the second half gives way to forced conflict and maudlin sentiment, nearly wasting the goodwill its built up to that point. Thankfully the acting is sincere and mostly affecting (despite some shaky accents from Murray and Watts), making the rote beats the movie hits more palatable than they might have otherwise been. This is a hangout movie that does nothing new but is at least professional. Shot well and brightly lit, it provides a colourful backdrop to Vincent and his beautifully messy world (with his home being a marvel of subtle production design).
Ultimately, it’s a chance to hang out with Bill Murray (or at least one of his personas) for 100 minutes. The movie features some light laughs and strained pathos combined in a familiar package, and it’s all held together with strong performances that often outshine the script. St. Vincent seems to be aware that its primary pleasure is simply basking in Murray’s glow, and in fact plays a long clip of him as Vincent over the end credits, leisurely singing some Dylan to himself and watering his yard, as if to say: Here he is, the great Bill Murray just doing his thing. It’s a middle-of-the-road effort starring a titan of American comedy, but sometimes that’s all that’s needed.