St. Vincent Review
By: Brandon Wolfe
The film career of Bill Murray has become neatly bifurcated over the last couple of decades. Murray started out as the droll wiseacre in comedy classics like ‘Caddyshack,’ ‘Stripes’ and ‘Ghostbusters,’ a mode he largely remained in until being reinvented as a seriocomic indie darling by Wes Anderson in ‘Rushmore,’ the mode in which he’s operated ever since. Turning in a parade of performances as sad sacks experiencing midlife crises, the contemporary Murray has little in common with the unflappable sly dog we knew and loved in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and though Murray’s dramatic work has birthed many gems (chief among them, his work with Anderson and his role in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Broken Flowers’), many fans have longed for the Murray of old to reemerge.
In the early going, ‘St. Vincent’ seems like it might meet the two Murrays in the middle, acting as a hybrid of the wily old Murray from comedies of yore and the new, melancholy Murray of today. The role offers him the opportunity to be the irrepressible slob and the mopey old schmoe simultaneously. They even give him a high-school-aged sidekick, the better to remind us of ‘Meatballs’ and ‘Rushmore’ at the same time. However, ‘St. Vincent’ isn’t the perfect storm of Murrayness we initially might take it to be. It’s not funny enough to stand alongside Murray’s best comedies and it’s too clumsy and saccharine to be counted among his finest dramatic work. Despite its best intentions, it’s a wash.
Armed with a distracting Brooklyn accent, Murray plays Vincent McKenna, a broken-down, drunken old sot who, when we first meet him, accidentally knocks himself out cold in his kitchen after a night at the local watering hole and wakes up the following morning caked in his own blood. Cantankerous and misanthropic, Vincent’s life is a complete self-inflicted wreck. He owes thousands of dollars to his patient-yet-menacing bookie (Terrence Howard) down at the racetrack. His wife is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and cannot remember him during his weekly visits to the posh nursing home that he’s placed her in yet cannot afford. He’s mixed up with a “lady of the night” quasi-girlfriend (Naomi Watts, saddled with a terrible ‘Boris and Natasha’ accent) who may or may not be carrying Vincent’s child. And his home is a dilapidated wreck, especially after he backs over his own fence while attempting to park after a bender.
Change comes to Vincent’s life in the form of Maggie and Oliver Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher), the mother and son who just moved in next door. Their initial meeting with their new neighbor is as unpleasant as, it seems, all interactions with Vincent are, as he blames her hired gardeners for ruining his fence (the one Vincent himself destroyed and doesn’t remember) and knocking a branch off of his tree. Vincent demands restitution from Maggie, though even he seems unable to explain how one can be made whole for a broken tree. However, when Oliver’s phone and keys are stolen by a school bully, he finds himself locked out of the house while Maggie is working double shifts as a nurse, and turns to Vincent for help and shelter, which the grumpy neighbor bitterly agrees to provide on a regular basis after successfully shaking down Maggie for hourly babysitting compensation. Vincent doesn’t take to Oliver at first, because he doesn’t take to anyone, but when he finds the little pipsqueak menaced by the same bully, he intervenes and a bond begins to form. Soon Vincent is taking Oliver down to the racetrack and bar with him, unbeknownst to his mother. Oliver, lacking a male role model due to his absentee letch of a father, takes a shine to this rumpled old goat, locating the speck of decency within him that no one else could ever see.
Eventually ‘St. Vincent’ shakes off whatever promise of fun shenanigans with Bill Murray corrupting a small child that it had baited us with. The film gets morose as it sends Vincent down a dark path where he hits rock bottom, losing his wife, reaching the end of his bookie’s patience and even suffering a debilitating stroke. He begins to caustically retreat from Oliver and the rest of the world. He also complicates matters for Maggie, as her louse of an ex-husband is seeking custody of Oliver and has hired a private investigator to follow the boy, observing his exposure to gambling, booze and Russian prostitutes. Then the film overcorrects by sending us off with a schmaltzy crowdpleaser of a final act. Oliver goes to a Catholic school and his priest teacher (Chris O’Dowd, charming as ever, though he seems to constantly be using his students to workshop stand-up material) assigns the class a project, referenced all throughout the film, to pick someone in their lives to designate as a living saint in a big upcoming ceremony. A dollar to anyone who can predict who Oliver nominates for sainthood.
Murray is the shining light of ‘St. Vincent.’ The script hands him a thin character, but he puts in a rich performance, elevating the material far beyond what’s on the page. Murray is likable, funny and moving, making Vincent feel fully realized through the sheer force of his personality and skill. I don’t know what drew him to this mediocre film, but he did it the best favor that anyone could have done. McCarthy also does solid work with an unexceptional character, in a welcome respite from her increasingly tired comedy schtick. And young Lieberher proves to be a fine young actor, never feeling too precious or artificial the way that many child actors can come across. But it’s simply a shame that the film doesn’t allow Murray to really cut loose with more of his trademark impishness. This is the first film in over a decade that had the potential to deliver something of the old Bill Murray we knew, loved and miss, and writer-director Theodore Melfi trades this rare, prime opportunity in exchange for maudlin drama and contrived heartstring-tugging. You don’t get to sainthood after committing a sin like that.
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