Stars: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher
At first glance, St. Vincent seems like it might be a straight-up reboot of As Good As It Gets, the quintessential Grumpy-Old-Neighbor-Turns-Out-To-Have-A-Heart-Of-Gold Oscar-bait movie, with a cute kid instead of a cute dog. However, thanks to some deft writing by Ted Melfi, and the presence of a quirky cast, led by the ever-idiosyncratic Bill Murray, St. Vincent turns out to have a charm uniquely its own.
There are no surprises in the basic bones of the story. Vincent (Bill Murray) is an irascible old man with money problems, circling the laundromat, racetrack and liquor stores of his blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood in a beat-up LeBaron. The only bright spots in his day are visits from pregnant Russian stripper Daka (Naomi Watts), and moments of appreciation from his cat, Felix. This mundane and somewhat miserable existence is jolted onto a new track by the arrival next door of newly divorced mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her precocious 10 year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher).
Desperate for cash, identifying a similar level of desperation with the no-one-else-to-turn-to Maggie, Vincent offers to babysit Oliver after school. Thus begins an endearing odd-couple friendship. Vincent sees no reason to filter his activities to make them child friendly, or even appropriate. He simply straps Oliver into the LeBaron and goes wherever he needs to go. En route, Vincent helps Oliver deal with school bullies, teaches him gambling odds, introduces him to his barfly buddies, and to the important women in his life. This represents a fast-track education in the seamier side for the sheltered Oliver, but he quickly learns to take the old man’s eccentricities in his wide-eyed stride.
Naturally, there’s a lot going wrong for Vincent, Maggie, Oliver, and Daka, all beset by the kind of problems that are magnified by a perpetual lack of cash. In reality, they’d end up destitute and alone, but, in the feel-good context of this movie, they find a way to pull together and make it work.
If that sounds sugary, it is, unashamedly. St. Vincent doesn’t aspire to be challenging, gritty or sophisticated. Instead, it racks up the clichés and contrasts, tossing in some well-worn darker notes (a bully-dominated dodgeball game, a violent thug strong-arming Vincent for his gambling debts, medical bills no one can pay, diseases of old age) on its mission to make the audience experience the fuzziest of warm feels.
Vincent is the best character Murray has had to work within for a while: a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, bad driving clown who keeps acting the asshole even though he suspects no one is still watching – or still cares. Daka and Felix have long ago become immune to his charmlessness. When Maggie and Oliver arrive, he sees them as a fresh audience, quickly and easily provoked to outrage. However, with a new gallery to play to, Vincent discovers time and grief have mellowed him. He no longer gets the same kick out of being a total dick, especially when he sees Oliver responds most to small kindnesses. Oliver’s hovering presence and growing approbation accelerates the demise of the self that has served Vincent a lifetime, and, through the trauma of the third act, he is – very late in the game – reborn. Murray plays the crass comedy and insecurity with equal aplomb, and even finds a couple of beats of alcoholic rage and self-loathing to season the mix. His Vincent is the perfect flawed protagonist: that mixed-up, capricious, charismatic guy you can spend a fun-packed couple of hours with, without wanting to give him your number at the end of the night.
McCarthy is also great, toning down the bawdiness to generate a genuinely sympathetic single Mom, struggling but not saintly, down but still swinging a mean right hook, especially when confronted by Vincent’s reckless and child-endangering tendencies. When she has to give an account of her choices (including hiring Vincent as babysitter) to Oliver’s teachers (both priests), she tells it exactly how she sees it: life sucks, and we rarely, if ever, meet the standards others set for us. Watts, in a rare comic turn, is hilarious, and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher is sweet, thoughtful and dynamic in the catalyzing role.
St. Vincent is, to use the phrase that riles the titular character on a couple of occasions, what it is. Gentle, heartwarming, fluffy, yet surprisingly subtle in places, it’s a movie for when you want to block out the world, or when you really can’t be bothered with the rest of the ponderous, flashy or self-important awards season offerings. Stay for the credits: Murray’s shambolic rendering of Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm is worth the ticket price by itself.
St. Vincent rolls out over the next few weeks, beginning in Los Angeles (Landmark, Arclight), and New York on October 10th.