St. Vincent stars Bill Murray as Vincent Mackenna, a grouchy old recluse and drunk who shambles from his recliner to his bed – for a weekly rendezvous with pregnant Russian hooker Daka (Naomi Watts) – to the racetrack and back. He’s perpetually three sheets to the wind, his house is a mess, he owes money to his bookie (Terrence Howard) and he’s flat broke. So when he sees a way to make cash off the single mom (Melissa McCarthy) who moves in next door – watching her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) after school while she’s working long hours as a CAT scan technician – he takes it, albeit reluctantly, because who the hell wants to watch a little brat when you can get sloshed, get laid and play the ponies?
The bigger question is, why would McCarthy’s character, Maggie, even entrust her boy to this mess of a man in this day and age – especially when she has custody hearings coming up? That’s perhaps the most egregious mistake St. Vincent makes, but first-time writer and director Theodore Melfi doesn’t seem too interested in exploring Maggie’s potentially bad choice until he needs to for maximum emotional impact, which happens very late in the story. By that time, as you would imagine and can easily see coming, Vincent and Oliver have bonded big time, with Oliver melting the old man’s heart a little and Vincent somehow teaching life lessons to the kid (how to stand up for yourself, how to pretend you just lost a bet when your bookie is glaring at you, etc.).
If I sound a bit negative about St. Vincent, it’s only because there is nothing in this film that we have not seen before in a hundred other indie-style comedy/dramas of this sort. You know that Vincent is secretly harboring some deep pain, you know that Maggie will have her custody hearing just as everything around her seems to unravel, and you know that this seemingly disparate group of characters will eventually form a charmingly quirky new family. You can even predict most of the story beats and music cues almost down to the minute.
And yet the film is mostly watchable, thanks mainly to Murray’s effortlessly eccentric charm and some good work by McCarthy (dropping the loudmouth white-trash shtick of her last few films) and Lieberher, who is smart and precocious without being as annoying as kids in these kinds of films can be. On the other hand, Watts delivers what could be one of the worst performances of the year; her hooker with a heart of gold not only borders on camp but her accent is downright atrocious. Howard and Chris O’Dowd – as the kindly priest who teaches Oliver’s class – are also given little to work with.
No, it’s pretty much the Murray show all the way, and if the movie is a shameless Oscar grab for the actor – as some early detractors claim – then at least he makes the most of it. Even when the script becomes overly sentimental and clichéd, Murray himself never quite wallows in it; there’s just enough of an edge to Vincent to keep the film from turning completely gooey and simply sliding off the screen. Until the very end, that is; the movie’s big, contrived finale is programmed for maximum tissue action and all the star can do is literally stand by and let it play out.
I doubt that the ending will milk a lot of tears from anyone, since it’s billboarded in the film’s title itself, and you may find yourself groaning at the worst of the movie’s excesses and been-there-done-that plot points. But you may also find yourself chuckling more often than not and even buying into some of the sweeter moments between Vincent and Oliver. Melfi’s direction is mostly unremarkable but competent on a technical level, and he does make good use of the movie’s Brooklyn locations (it’s set in Sheepshead Bay). A nice setting, a solid cast, a star in top form – all Melfi needed was a script that didn’t seem cut and pasted from others that came before it, including one or two even starring Murray himself.
St. Vincent is out in theaters now.