Uneven 'St. Vincent' Has Its Moments, But Not Many
Bill Murray does his best with a Brooklyn accent and a lackluster script.
St. Vincent seems like the kind of movie that's gift-wrapped for Bill Murray to do major damage in. He plays an old guy who befriends the kid next door and hijinks ensue. But the film suffers from an uneven script that's much more sentimental than funny. Murray is shackled to the radiator by his grumpy character and Brooklyn accent and made one-dimensional. He has scenes of grace and earnestness but he doesn't earn them, or rather, the movie doesn't.
Vincent (Murray) is a Vietnam vet who still wears fatigues and drinks too much. He lives alone in Brooklyn in a disgusting old house and reveals at one point how the world works: "Work. Get paid. Drink." Vincent isn't living. He's playing out the string, and he doesn't do those first two things anymore, just the last one. So his motivation is financial when the neighbor next-door, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), needs a little help with her son. Vincent becomes the babysitter and unwitting father figure to 10 or 11-year-old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), a wimpy little kid with a big heart.
So what comes next? Oliver stirs Vincent's soul and he becomes a good guy, right? Well, kind of. Vincent is surprisingly accepting of Oliver at first, something that doesn't quite fit his character. He makes the kid sardines and crackers and calls it "sushi." He brings him to the track, to the bar, and then, a shocker, Vincent stops by the assisted living home to visit his wife, who doesn't know him anymore but allows him to "treat her" as long as he wears a long white jacket. This scene, straight out of The Notebook, comes from nowhere and is such a contrived way to tell us Vincent is actually a good guy, I wanted to hate every second of the rest of the movie.
But St. Vincent is hard to hate completely. Writer/director Theodore Melfi can thank his star, who, despite the script, can't help but deliver perfectly timed lines at key moments. Murray's comedic instincts are there, as always, and his best scene is a physical one as he smashes himself with a hammer breaking ice and knocks himself out with a temper tantrum. But even with Murray, Melfi struggles to generate laughs. His script defaults to the safe instead of the creative so we get a montage of Vincent and Oliver having fun together, like something out of The Royal Tenenbaums. And we get cookie cutter ancillary characters, like Terrence Howard's tough guy bookie and Chris O'Dowd's cool priest. The one interesting supporting character is Daka, Vincent's hooker girlfriend who's also pregnant. Naomi Watts plays her with a great cynicism that rings as true as her thick Russian accent. It's the film's only true comedic role, even if it is a cliche.
As the story winds down, it becomes clear the Vincent and Oliver friendship isn't going to work out. Maggie gets upset, calls the old man out for taking her kid to a bar, and tells him he's a loser. It's the set-up for the film's big emotional payoff, which I won't ruin, but it's worth mentioning it involves a round of applause. Melfi deserves some credit, I suppose, for knowing how to tug on the heart strings a bit. You can't help but root for Oliver, a saint of a kid himself (he calls Vincent "Sir," a military tribute that hits home with the grizzled vet) and Lieberher is quietly excellent in the role.
The friendship between Vincent and Oliver is the reason to see the film (along with the closing credits that show Murray lip-syncing "Shelter from the Storm"). The great comedic actor has his moments, but he's ugly to look at and uglier to listen to with that accent. His best scenes are opposite Lieberher as they become tentative buddies. (And it's worth noting McCarthy is sorely underused, although she's fine as the concerned, inexperienced single mom.) For Murray, St. Vincent was a chance to show off the funny, prick-ish side we haven't seen since Scrooged or Mad Dog and Glory. It's too bad the writing wasn't there for him like it was in his best movie, the similarly-themed Rushmore.