A film review by Craig J. Koban October 31, 2014 

ST. VINCENT j
j
½ 

2014, R, 103 mins.

 

Bill Murray as Vincent  /  Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver  /  Melissa McCarthy as Maggie  /  Naomi Watts as Daka  /  Chris O'Dowd as Brother Geraghty  /  Terrence Howard as Zucko

Written and directed by Theodore Melfi

ST. VINCENT is a deeply manipulative film about deeply endearing characters.  

It tells a story that has been served up, in one form or another, countless times before in other films – a cantankerous ol’ bastard of a drunk gets reformed into a better, less self-loathing individual via the aid of a sweet and innocent kid from the block.  

Writer/director Theodore Melfi – making his feature film debut – certainly populates ST. VINCENT with a wonderful group of spirited and talented actors (the great Bill Murray being one of them, an actor that I could simply watch reading the phone book on camera for two-hours), but his well-meaning and noble minded dramedy coasts into a thick haze of schmaltz and TV sitcom contrivances that holds the film back from innovation.  More often than not, Melfi’s film just feels artificial and formulaic to its core despite the strong performances contained within. 

If there is one soul pleasure to be derived from this otherwise half-cooked affair then it’s the presence of Murray front and center in it, and it’s certainly a thrill to see the star return to his comedic roots playing a lazy and spiteful misanthrope that scores many comic zingers at the expense of others.  Her can play these roles blindfolded and with little effort, to be sure, but he creates such an unpredictable level of oddball capricious energy throughout the film that his performance often rises far above the film’s all-too-convenient narrative arcs.  He plays Vincent, a pathetic sad sack of a human being that does, well, relatively little with his life.  Outside of his cat and a pregnant prostitute/stripper (Naomi Watts, enunciating with a frankly distracting Russian accent), Vincent has no friends.  When he’s not drinking himself nearly to death he aggressively gambles away what little money he has left in life.  With no family, an empty bank account, failing health, and a dilapidated apartment, Vincent is on a quick train to all out self-implosion. 

 

 

But wait!  Redemption for him comes in the form of a precocious, inquisitive, and awfully nice little boy named Oliver (a natural and refined Jaeden Lieberher), Vincent’s new neighbor that has just moved in next door with his soon-to-be-divorced mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, wonderfully shedding away the aggressively crusty-mouthed loser characterizations that she has played in far too many past films).  Vincent’s first meeting with the two doesn’t go well, seeing as his own code forbids him to allow any new friends or confidants into his life, but Oliver seems to take an inexplicable liking to the man.  One day the lad – after not being picked up by his workaholic mother – drops by Vincent’s grungy pad to “hang out” until Maggie returns home, which eventually allows Vincent to realize that he could milk Maggie out of some money in daily babysitting costs.  For reasons the screenplay never fully develops, Maggie agrees to let Vincent care for and babysit her kid after school, which – unbeknownst to her – usually involves frequenting bars, strip clubs, and race tracks. 

On the positive, ST. VINCENT features spot-on performances by its effective triumvirate of Murray, McCarthy, and Lieberher.  Again, Murray steals the thunder in just about every scene he occupies in the film as he demonstrates how to walk a real dicey performance line between making us utterly loathe Vincent for being such a cruel and vindictive figure and making us pity and like him as a downtrodden man whose life threw him one too many curveballs.  McCarthy, I have often stated, is a good actress that has far too often been saddled with playing the same type of motormouthed clowns in films for her own good to the point of being typecast, but here she effectively plays a more modulated and calm soul that reveals her range as an actress that was only hinted at before.  Lieberher, as far as child actors go, doesn’t seem to have any of those pesky and exasperating performance nuances that so many other youth performers have.  At the tender age of 11, he faces a Herculean task of playing most of his scenes opposite of Murray and confidently holding his own, which is a difficult task for any actor – old or not – making his feature film debut.  Lieberher acclimatizes himself rather well. 

Yet, darn it all anyway, why does ST. VINCENT play things so achingly...safe?  The setup here sort of teases a macabre comedy of ill manners in the same vibe of BAD SANTA, but the problem with ST. VINCENT is that it’s not bold or brave enough with its inherent material to go to dark places with the characters and their interplay.  I guess this is not really helped by the fact that the script itself is saddled with so many predictable and questionable plot developments that you kind of scratch your head in the end trying to figure out how all of the characters arrived at such a rosy and neatly wrapped up conclusion.  Vincent establishes himself as such an odiously anti-social creature that why a fairly congenial and protective lady like Maggie would ever allow her son to spend one waking moment with this man seems to strain credulity.  Alas, we wouldn’t have a movie if she didn’t allow the two to cohabitate together on a daily basis.  I’m not a fan of ill-conceived movie logic trumping actual logic. 

Melfi also seems to struggle with maintaining some overall consistency amidst the film’s various subplots, some vying for our attention and getting it, whereas some fail to do so altogether.  The whole issue of Maggie’s custody problems with her ex-husband are only hazily developed, whereas Vincent’s relationship with his whore-girlfriend is never truly explained in any meaningful manner.  The great Terrance Howard is criminally underused her as a bookie that grows more bitter and angry with Vincent by the day when he fails to pay up on his gamble debts (his character is established as a threat, but then disappears altogether).  Vincent’s own history seems sprinkled into the fabric of the film whenever it deems it necessary, especially when it hopes that it’ll pay off in its would-be rousing conclusion. 

Speaking of conclusions, the climax of ST. VINCENT desperately tries to tug our heartstrings and methodically ring tears out of our collective eyes.  I was not really moved as much as I was left feeling a bit cheated at the way the film shamelessly builds to such a mechanically derived payoff when the boy finally is able to crack through Vincent’s hard-edged outer façade and bring out the kind soul that rests inside.  I have no problem with feel-good entertainment, but ST. VINCENT revels in simplistically crafted resolutions that desperately want us to embrace and like the title character.  I can definitely see how so many were recently won over by the film at the 2014 TIFF (it was second runner up for the “People’s Choice Award” for best film), but the mostly hackneyed material here does a disservice to the terrific assemble performances, which rise above the so-so scripting.  

The best scene, though, in ST. VINCENT occurs in its end credits, as Bill Murray waters a dying plant in his backyard while dancing and singing to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter in the Storm” on his walkman (eat your heart out, Star-Lord!).  The film comes joyously alive at this point…just a bit too late, though. 

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