It makes sense that first-time writer/director Theodore Melfi chased down the notoriously difficult to chase down Bill Murray to star in St. Vincent, a film that belongs on that short list of films featuring Murray's finest performances. After all, if you've seen Murray in films such as Meatballs, The Royal Tenenbaums, or Rushmore, then you already know that Murray has a knack for shining alongside younger co-stars and in making sure they shine right along with him.
Such is what happens with St. Vincent, an otherwise contrived and predictable little film that is one of those surefire audience pleasers that, unfortunately, audiences tend to discover once it arrives on home video rather than on the big screen. While St. Vincent has proven thus far to be a modest hit, it's not the hit that it truly deserves to be considering it features one of Murray's best performances, Melissa McCarthy's best big screen performance, and an emotionally resonant and satisfying performance from newcomer Jaeden Lieberher.
There's no question that St. Vincent is Murray's film. Murray plays Vincent, a drunken smartass with a distaste for nearly every human with the possible exception of a mysterious woman whom he regularly visits in a rather posh nearby retirement community. He's also at least modestly fond of Daka (Naomi Watts), a Russian "lady of the night" who also happens to be pregnant.
When Maggie (McCarthy) moves in next door with her 12-year-old son Oliver (Lieberher), Vincent's need for some quick cash to satisfy a bookie (Terrence Howard) gets satisfied when, rather unfathomably, Maggie asks Vincent if he'll watch Oliver while she picks up some extra shifts at the hospital where she works.
There's a price of course (No, silly. Not that.).
There's a lot that happens in St. Vincent. In fact, there's too much that happens in St. Vincent and some of it's downright unnecesary even if it does give this terrific ensemble cast an absolute opportunity to shine.
Daka, for example, serves no real purpose in the film yet somehow Naomi Watts makes her matter and makes us care about her. I mean, sure, she has a place within the structure of the story but she doesn't really add much to it. Vincent and Oliver would have been just fine without her.
What really matters in the film is what happens between Vincent and Oliver. As one might expect given that this is Bill Murray in the starring role, Vincent doesn't exactly turn out to be the most traditional babysitter around. Vincent takes Oliver to the horse-racing track, the neighborhood bar, and teaches him how to fight back when he starts being bullied as the small, incredibly non-athletic new kid at a Catholic school where his teacher (Chris O'Dowd) waxes eloquently about the religious diversity in his classroom. Murray excels in these scenes because he can play surly, irascible, and sympathetic with equal ease and as much as it's hard to buy into a responsible mother leaving her son with an obviously irresponsible next door neighbor she doesn't really know, Murray makes it all seem alright. While I get the feeling that Lieberher could do just fine on his own, alongside Murray he truly shines with a performance that is a slightly more soulful version of Chris Makepeace's in Meatballs.
St. Vincent is one of those films that would likely collapse with the wrong director or with the wrong cast. It could have been painfully unfunny or detached or it could simply drown within its overwrought predictability. It doesn't. While one could argue that Melfi tries to accomplish too much here, his light directorial touch gives the cast freedom to interpret each scene and even each word within the dialogue in their own way. The end result is that Murray's Vincent is far more than the usual grouch and, in fact, he's so incredibly complex that it kinda sorta makes sense when Vincent comes to mind for young Oliver when a very special school assignment comes along. Melissa McCarthy, as well, should finally convince everyone that she's far more than simply a physical comedy actress. While she's tackled moments of sentimentality before, she's never really had the chance to tackle a character who leans more toward the dramatic side of the spectrum. Maggie gets laughs, but they're laughs that are borne out of the natural circumstances rather than broad physical comedy.
If you're looking for a realistic yet life-affirming film this holiday season, I'd have no trouble recommending St. Vincent as the kind of film that makes you smile even when you know exactly what's going to happen. While the Best Actor race is looking a bit crowded this year, it wouldn't be surprising to see Murray snag a nomination here and McCarthy may very well pick up one as a Best Supporting Actress.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic