ST. VINCENT just might be the most enjoyable trite, cliché-ridden, and predictable movie I’ve seen in a while.
It’s all three of these things, which usually spells doom for a movie, but in this case, excellent performances by Bill Murray and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, who’s just eleven years old, and fine support by a subdued Melissa McCarthy, make this one much better than it should be.
Bill Murray plays Vincent, a cranky cantankerous old man who is having a rough go at life and is fine letting everybody know that he is. He also hits the bottle regularly, often drinking far more than he should, and he bets on the horses, and loses, so much so that he owes some dangerous men a decent chunk of money.
When the movers moving in his new neighbors, a single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) who’s smack dab in the middle of a divorce and a child custody battle, and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), accidentally smash into the tree next to his house, severing a branch which crushes the top of his car, Vincent is quick to demand payment from Maggie for damages, something she promises to take care of soon.
After having a deplorable day at school, where he’s bullied cruelly, to the point where his clothes are stolen, including his house keys, Oliver returns home wearing only his gym clothes. Locked out of his house, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone to call his mom. Vincent is none too happy about letting Oliver into his house, but he does, and he’s even more put out when Maggie asks if Oliver can stay there until she comes home from work.
The afternoon goes well, and Vincent finds himself enjoying Oliver’s company, even though he won’t admit it. He also sees an opportunity, and he offers to watch Oliver every day after school while Maggie is at work, because he is in desperate need of the money. Maggie agrees— which I found nearly impossible to believe since they had just moved there and she doesn’t know Vincent from a hole in the wall, and yet she trusts this man with her son?— and so just like that Vincent and Oliver are suddenly spending every afternoon together.
There’s little need to describe the rest of the plot because you can see it all coming a mile away. In fact, by far, the worst part of ST. VINCENT is its predictable plot. I so much wished this one had had a completely different story. However, amazingly so, due to the strong performances, this movie works, and I can’t deny that I really enjoyed it from beginning to end.
As Oliver and Vincent get to know each other, Vincent helps Oliver with his bully problem, teaching him how to defend himself, and Oliver learns that Vincent’s wife is sick with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home, and that Vincent visits her nearly every day and does her laundry for her, even though she doesn’t remember who he is. Of course, Vincent also takes Oliver with him to the horse races and also to his favorite bar where he drinks freely in front of the boy.
When Vincent suffers a stroke, Oliver and Maggie are quick to visit him and help him get back on his feet. And when it’s time for Oliver to write a presentation at his Catholic school about “saints among us” guess who he chooses to write about? I told you this one was predictable.
And it is, terribly so. But somehow it didn’t seem to matter.
First off, Bill Murray is terrific in this film, and he’s the number one reason this movie works so well. I could pretty much watch Murray in anything, and he’d make it good, which is exactly what he does here. Heck, in the opening montage of this movie, he enjoys more fine moments in the first five minutes than a lot of other actors do in an entire movie. He brings Vincent to life immediately, and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
While Murray is always funny, and he’s certainly is here in ST. VINCENT, his finest moments are actually of the dramatic variety. In scenes where he learns that his bank account is empty, and when he receives awful news about his wife, the expression on his face resonates deep hurt and disappointment. Murray comes off as weathered, seasoned, and frustrated by life. I saw NIGHTCRAWLER the same weekend I saw ST. VINCENT, and I applauded Jake Gyllenhaal for his terrific performance in that film and said it was Oscar-worthy, and it was. Likewise, Bill Murray might be receiving some Oscar consideration for his role here in ST. VINCENT. He’s that good.
And just as good as Murray is young Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver. Lieberher plays such a likeable little kid, it’s easy to see why Vincent enjoys spending time with him. Oliver is wise beyond his years, and as cliché-ridden as his saint project is, it still is a moving moment in the movie, because Lieberher laces it with an incredible amount of sincerity. In spite of the predictability of their relationship, I completely bought the friendship between Vincent and Oliver.
Melissa McCarthy has only a small role here as Oliver’s mom Maggie, and compared to her usual performances, she’s very subdued. Yet, she still remains relevant. Like Murray, her best moments in this film are the dramatic ones. Sure, when she goes on about how hard her life is as a single mom, and that she has to work extra hours to make ends meet, and how she’s in a vicious custody battle with her ex-husband over their son, I could hear the violins playing and I wanted to gag. It was a little bit much for my liking. I half-expected to see a man in black knocking at her door demanding rent money.
But again, McCarthy, like Murray, rises above the material and makes it work. She also gets to fire some zingers at Murray, putting him in his place for taking her son to a bar, for instance. McCarthy cuts Murray down to size and is believable doing it, which is no easy task.
Only Naomi Watts seems out of place as Vincent’s Russian stripper girlfriend Daka, who is crass and blunt and speaks her mind with regularity, and because of her difficulty with the English language, often says things that come out wrong, and this is supposed to be funny. In fact, her character is pretty much completely played for laughs. It was an odd role for Watts, and unfortunately I never really bought her Russian accent, or her character.
ST. VINCENT was written and directed by Theodore Melfi. I have mixed feelings about the script. On the surface, the story is pretty bad. Crabby old man befriends a likeable young boy, does nothing for me as a story idea, and some of the story elements don’t work either. I thought the majority of the scenes at Oliver’s Catholic school were unrealistic in terms of how schools and classrooms are run, and the dialogue in these scenes was trite and oftentimes ridiculous. The subplot with Vincent and his Russian girlfriend Daka was weird and hard to fathom, especially when we see Vincent still so in love with his ailing wife.
And yet, most if not all of Vincent’s dialogue is spot-on. When life throws him daggers, Vincent lashes out and the things he says are both funny and sad, but more importantly, make sense. The scenes with Vincent and his wife are wonderfully done, as are the later scenes when Vincent has to deal with the effects of his stroke.
I have to give credit to Melfi as a director because he certainly gets the most out of Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, and Melissa McCarthy. I don’t think that all three of these actors delivered topnotch performances by accident.
The main reason though to see ST. VINCENT and ultimately why it’s so enjoyable is because of Bill Murray. In ST. VINCENT, Murray gets to be hilariously funny, touchingly dramatic, especially in those scenes with his wife, and finally he gets to play a stroke victim, and you know what? He’s fantastic in all three of these elements.
Bill Murray was one of the highlights in the George Clooney World War II drama THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) which came out earlier this year, and he’s the main attraction here in ST. VINCENT. We haven’t seen a lot of Bill Murray in the movies in recent years, but hopefully his appearance in these two movies in 2014 means he’ll be showing up more often.
Not everybody can take a mediocre story and turn it into an enjoyable experience. In ST. VINCENT, Murray does just that, and he does it with ease.