There are very few actors whose mere presence can make a bad film bearable and take something that is clichéd and predictable and elevate it into something eminently watchable or, dare I say, enjoyable. I mean even the considerable talents of Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender couldn’t save The Counselor from being anything more than the cinematic equivalent of a steaming turd. Thankfully though, Bill Murray exists in this world and for that we should be eternally grateful. Murray has a remarkable ability to somehow meld absurdist humour with pathos and poignancy that, for reasons perhaps we will never understand, works without becoming trite or overly manipulative. Think Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers and you will have some understanding of what I am talking about. Whilst St. Vincent – the sophomore directorial effort from Theodore Melfi – is hardly laden with originality (then again, how many films these days can lay claim to being truly original), Murray’s performance as the stubborn, hedonistic Vincent strikes the perfect balance between angel and asshole.
Vincent is a bitter, belligerent, crass Vietnam Veteran who smokes, drinks, gambles and lives in a ramshackle house in suburban New York with only his cat Felix and weekly visits from pregnant Russian stripper-cum-prostitute Daka (Naomi Watts) for company. Much like Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, but without the racist attitude, Vincent is a curmudgeonly loner who, at face value, is difficult to like. He drives while under the influence and then scams his new neighbour Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) into paying for the repairs to a fence that he damaged whilst doing so. Of course, as is the case any time a character such as this appears in a mainstream entertainment, there is always much more than meets the eye and this is very much the case here. To Melfi’s credit though, he doesn’t succumb to the temptation of transforming Vincent into somebody more affable. Too many times we see characters start out as something altogether unlikeable, only to have them undergo a 90-minute metamorphosis into somebody completely different. In this instance, Melfi – who also wrote the screenplay – has created a character who presents as complicated and cantankerous and, whilst we learn there is much more to him than meets the eye, he never morphs into a vision of peace and love.
It is Maggie’s young son Oliver (Jaiden Lieberher) who gives us access to Vincent and it is the relationship between the two that drive the narrative. When Oliver, having been bullied and beaten at school, arrives home sans phone and keys, he turns to Vincent for assistance. Seeing an opportunity to make some money (the need for which is revealed later), Vincent agrees to look after Oliver after school each day, provided he is paid accordingly. As is to be expected, the two develop a friendship of sorts as Vincent introduces the youngster to the less ‘respectable’ side of life with visits to the racetrack and his favourite bar. Needless to say, Maggie is not impressed but has little other option as she works extended hours in a bid to ward off a custody claim from her husband. There are hijinks and heartbreak in equal measure as we begin to understand exactly what drives Vincent’s disdain for the world around him; and it isn’t hard to sympathise with this plight.
Some will argue that St. Vincent is really just Bill Murray being, well, Bill Murray. Of course, the same could be said about the entire career of Charlie Chaplin, so it is hardly cause for complaint. Murray is good and it really is his performance, along with solid support from McCarthy and Lieberher that lift the film above others of its type. Chris O’Dowd also has a supporting role as that very rare of beasts; namely a Catholic school teacher who is open-minded and doesn’t take himself or his religion too seriously, with Terrence Howard also popping up as a bookie to whom Vincent is in debt. Usually so effective in everything she does, Watts grates as Daka, her Russian accent unconvincing and irritating to the point of distraction. That aside, St. Vincent is a bittersweet dramedy (yes, I know that’s not a real word) that bypasses that well-worn path to redemption, which is a welcome relief.