A wholly predictable, but largely satisfying dramatic experience
[Produced by Chernin Entertainment, Crescendo Productions, Goldenlight Films, & The Weinstein Company]
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Written by Theodore Melfi
Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, & Jaeden Lieberher
Synopsis: A young boy whose parents have just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door.
On paper, St. Vincent probably reads less like a screenplay and more like an algebra equation. Old, beloved comedy actor joins forces with younger rising star comedy actor, plus strong newcomer child actor – all in a serious drama equals a prestige picture that’ll capture the hearts and minds of the people. Throw in a couple of former Oscar winners in obscured supporting roles and you’ve got yourself a winning formula for Academy and general public success.
At least, that’s the theory. And while most audiences still can fall for it, it’s a recipe that more cynical individuals are becoming wise to, and consequently sick of. So with that in mind, how does St Vincent fare?
St. Vincent centres on Bill Murray, conforming to the cranky old man routine with little in the way of verve or nuance. He’s old fashioned, spiteful, rude, and anti-social. We learn that he has a bad drinking problem, has gambling debts all over town, and rejects the company of others except for a prickly pregnant Russian prostitute (played by an almost unrecognisable Naomi Watts), and his beautiful fluffy cat, who eats expensive cat food, while he devours meals not fit for your average pauper. He slums about in his ramshackle house, the local tavern, and the race track – making enemies wherever he goes.
Of course, change is coming, and his carefully cultivated unapproachable existence is challenged when Melissa McCarthy and her impressionable son (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door. McCarthy has just escaped from a messy divorce, and works extremely long hours as a nurse, so is unable to be there for her son, which predictably then falls to our local misanthrope.
St Vincent is a film that is not looking to challenge the status quo. From the moment Lieberher arrives at his new Catholic school, the entire film’s narrative is laid bare. As soon as his teacher (Chris O’Dowd, playing our Irish Catholic plot cipher, which is made rather disconcerting if you saw Calvary from the same year) begins his lecture on saints the rest of the film becomes immediately apparent. It doesn’t help that O’Dowd is forced to make similar speeches at several intervals throughout the film, seemingly as if he’s kept updated with what Vincent and Lieberher have been doing, so he can tell the vulnerable young boy (and the equally gullible audience) how to feel about his new begrudging friend.
Of course, once Vincent has McCarthy’s son to contend with he alters his miserable routine a little. Sure, he drags the boy to his local watering hole, and the racetrack, but he also takes him to the nursing home that his dementia suffering wife resides at. Dressed as a doctor, he visits his wife, who sadly doesn’t recognise him, and we finally see some humanity in Murray’s performance. There’s a malaise of frustration and wistful sorrow in his eyes as he “examines” his wife and asks her surface questions about her health and feelings, but there is no reprieve for him to be found. We’re later told that he visits his wife every single week, and has done for years, but because we don’t see this until the boy enters his life, there’s a tacit implication that his new young friend has already “changed” him for the better. It also balances out the less than appropriate places and people he exposes the boy too while going about his routine.
Throughout, St. Vincent straddles a line between saccharine and predictable, with the occasional dark flourish that threatens to topple the formula. A brief flash of violence here, a dark threat, a catastrophic medical emergency there; moments that have an element of freshness to them, as if they were pinched from another, darker film. Technically, these tones should clash awkwardly, but it’s a testament to director Theodore Melfi’s earnestness (but perhaps not his scriptwriting ability) that he manages to pull it off mostly unscathed.
Murray delivers his best performance since Lost In Translation, even though it’s not necessarily a challenging role for him. Naomi Watts embodies the hooker with a heart of gold trope, with added Russian barbs jutting from her character. It’s a physically transformative role for her, but again, doesn’t give the actress much room for growth – she’s there for the comic relief as much as any dramatic component. Terrence Howard makes a brief appearance as Vincent’s embittered and supposedly dangerous bookie, but he just looks bored, and more contemplative over how his career brought him to accepting a bit part in this movie, rather than the performance at hand. Lieberher fares the best as a strong newcomer that could well be the next Asa Butterfield, Tye Sheridan or Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Unfortunately there’s always a weak link, and that rests with Melissa McCarthy’s put upon mother. While McCarthy began her ascent to movie stardom with a promising performance in breakout smash Bridesmaids, it has since become abundantly clear that that is all she is capable of. This is the same McCarthy we’ve seen multiple times, except this time without the pratfalls, sex and poop jokes – leaving her feeling outmatched and outclassed by everyone around her.
While Melfi’s direction is solid, his script telegraphs its payoff moments way in advance, often clumsily, and supporting characters serve as little more than perfunctory, catalysts to different aspects of the relationship between the two leads. O’Dowd in particular is effortlessly charming and engaging as Lieberher’s teacher, but his role is so clearly a cog of the proverbial narrative machine that it’s very hard to view him as an actual character.
Ultimately, while St. Vincent adheres to a tired formula, there are moments of successful poignancy, enhanced by passionate direction, and two resolutely strong central performances that elevate it beyond its station. St. Vincent won’t win the awards it seems to think it should (nor does it deserve to), but the positives more than outweigh the negatives in this redemptive, but predictable generation gap tale.