There’s a decent case to be made for Bill Murray being the patron saint of Hollywood, and writer-director Theodore Melfi thoroughly works over it in St Vincent, a star vehicle that gives the star a chance to exercise his deadpan comedy chops once again.
He plays Vin MacKenna, an alcoholic gambler who lives alone with his cat, Felix, and regularly meets with a pregnant Russian sex worker named Daka (Naomi Watts). He is about as far from saintliness as a person can be, when he meets his new neighbours- young Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) and his recently divorced mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy).
Nevertheless, Vin reluctantly takes on the role of babysitting Oliver while his mother works long shifts at the hospital, only demanding $12 an hour for his services. While schoolteacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) extols the virtues of modern sainthood in class, Vin becomes more like a surrogate father figure to his young charge, and as anti-social as he is, the two of them strike up an unlikely friendship.
It’s not the most unpredictable film of the year, but there’s something to be said for reliable delivery and St Vincent does manage to exceed expectations, even if it doesn’t subvert them. The title tells us as much as we need to know about where Vin’s unlikeable slobbery will eventually wind up, but happily, that doesn’t take away from watching it unfold.
In a less competitive awards season, it feels like Bill Murray would be a lock for the kind of Best Actor awards you get when you’re an actor of his standing who’s never won an Oscar – a cumulative prize for everything he’s ever done, for a role that feels more like textbook Murray than something as exceptional as Lost In Translation.
All the same, Murray throws himself into the role with aplomb, cakewalking the dry and arch side of the role but then really shows his mettle after a character development that would sink most other actors ballsy enough to chance it. It’s hardly surprising that he’s the most consistently watchable presence on screen, but Lieberher makes a terrific début too, as his Oliver more than holds his own in the face of Vin’s eccentricity.
The film also boasts the best Melissa McCarthy performance for a while, certainly her best since Bridesmaids. The script gives Maggie a slightly harder time than the character deserves, but McCarthy excels in more of a straight-woman role than we’re used to, particularly in a moving scene where Oliver’s adherence to Vin’s teachings leads to his mum being summoned to the school principal’s office to explain their home situation.
By the same token, Chris O’Dowd really makes the most of Brother Geraghty, the slightly exasperated Catholic schoolteacher (of his class’ theological make-up, he tells Oliver “We have a lot of ‘I don’t knows’, which seems to be the fastest growing religion in the world”). His function is really to set up the saintly conceit, but his performance is more than worthy of the role as written.
On the downside, Naomi Watts’s turn as Daka is embarrassingly bad. It’s like she’s in a different movie, doing a sub-”nuclear wessels” Russian accent that makes her sound far more like Constantine from this year’s Muppets Most Wanted than the character can bear.
Moreover, a sub-plot involving Terrence Howard as a loan shark goes precisely nowhere in the grand scheme of things, partly because he’s not a threatening screen presence but mostly because he vanishes into obscurity in the feel-good shuffle of the third act.
It’s such episodes that make the film feel somewhat bitty, so it feels perilously close to shaking apart when it hits the sentimental stuff hard in the last scenes. It just about holds together on the goodwill it garners early on and the strength of the two lead performances. It even ends on a rousing and likely ad-libbed end credits bonus that plays almost like Murray’s fourth-wall-breaking sing-along from the end of Scrooged, in subject if not in tone.
St. Vincent tries harder than it needs to, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely loses something more than its abrasive edge as it becomes progressively more sentimental. There are lots of laughs peppered throughout, largely arising from the killer chemistry between Murray and Lieberher, although Melfi sells out on his lead character’s cantankerous benevolence for schmaltz long before the end.
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