By Kyle G. King. If you’re hoping to cast Bill Murray in your movie, you have to call a 1-800 number, pitch your script to his voicemail, and keep your fingers crossed. Murray has earned the privilege to be selective about his roles and let’s face it, to be that uncannily cool. Theodore Melfi must have either incredible finger-dialing endurance or a talent for writing appealing characters, as Murray took the title role of Melfi’s feature directorial debut St. Vincent.
St. Vincent takes place in Sheepshead Bay, New York. The film’s tone is set in an instant as Vincent’s thick Brooklyn accent starts the movie with a joke about an Irishman. The way Vin talks, walks, and even methodically parks shades himself in the dark colors of a curmudgeonly old man who is long done with being polite or having any desire to change. Vin is down on his luck at the horse tracks, down on his finances at the bank, and literally down on his kitchen floor after a standard night of too much whiskey. Hammering his own thumb and whacking his head on the kitchen cabinet reads as a hammy scene from Monty Python, but Murray is one of the best at subtle physical comedy. He makes you feel the appropriate amount of pity and amusement for this foolish drunkard within his first few scenes.
When he awakes the next morning bleeding from the head, Vin discovers he has new neighbors to his left. Maggie and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Melissa McCarthy & newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) have moved to avoid the confrontation with Maggie’s cheating husband, Oliver’s legal father, David (Scott Adsit). “Legal father” is taken in the literal sense, as he is not biologically related to Oliver, and nor is Maggie for that matter: Oliver is adopted (a subject that the movie spends really no time on). That David is a respected lawyer means that he is surely capable of gaining custody of Oliver, and Maggie’s fear of a legally sanctified separation with her son takes them to their new home. They get off to a less than stellar start with Vin when the movers knock a sizable tree branch onto Vin’s car. He makes it crystal clear not to come over to borrow any brown sugar, and Oliver watches Vin drunkenly mosey back to his door. After being told by his mother that this is the start of their new life, Oliver presents his maturity in responding, “it’s going to be a long life”.
The precocious and analytical demeanor Lieberher brings to Oliver is a fresh voice for child actors. Far too often, young stars find themselves overcompensating with awkwardness and try-hard antics in scenes with veterans. Liberher shows that he understands the subtlety in the delivery of his lines. His scenes with Murray are well written for gifted, flexible actors and the two play off each other expertly. McCarthy too, takes on a role that is not within her expected Hollywood capacity. She showcases her ability to forgo balmy quips and outrageous physical comedy and still win the audience over. She fits into the role of a struggling single mother who finds life in the city to be overwhelming. Even with a stable job as a CAT scan technician, Maggie often has to pull longs shifts to support her family.
Oliver isn’t particularly gifted at making any friends at school. His home life doesn’t offer much company either as his mother works well past the hours when he gets home. On a particularly rough day, he finds himself locked out and without his phone. He has no choice but to wander next door and ask to use Vin’s phone. Being the sly businessman he is, Vin sees this scenario as a way to make the extra cash he very much needs. He offers to look after Oliver every day until Maggie gets home from work. She’s at first hesitant, but after some insight and reassurance from Oliver, she agrees to $11/hr. The work is indeed easy cash for Vin as Oliver simply tags along on Vin’s daily errands. But once Vin witnesses the bullying Oliver endures, he makes every chore/outing a life lesson for Oliver. The horse track trains Oliver in math, physical education is covered with how to properly break a bully’s nose, and social studies’ class takes place in Vin’s favorite strip club where Oliver meets Vin’s girlfriend/not girlfriend Daka (Naomi Watts with a thick Russian accent). Vin is always insistent about checking Oliver’s homework, but still gives him plenty of lectures he’d never hear in a Catholic school. (How to properly order from a bartender and what a trifecta is in horse racing is not covered within the school’s curriculum.)
There are more honorable examples Vin sets for Oliver too. Mainly the devotion and sacrifice he displays for his wife, who suffers from severe dementia and lives in a nursing home. Vin does her laundry and pretends to be her doctor all just to spend time with her. It’s not exactly an originally written character but Murray sands the rough edges of the cliched lovable scoundrel. His brand of charm and personal nuance takes that troped character’s heart to a new level of sweet bitterness.
All the scandalous affairs and lessons remain unknown to Maggie until her divorce and custody trial: David hired a private investigator to ensure he had the facility to gain guardianship. The P.I.’s findings are presented in court to support that Oliver is “not properly cared for”. Shocked, Maggie forbids Oliver to spend anymore time with Vin. Both quickly find themselves missing each other’s companionship. Oliver provides a small sliver of joy in Vin’s life who acts as a role model/father figure for Oliver.
At school, Oliver learns about both biblical and modern day saints. He is assigned a project to choose the person in his life who he feels most embodies saint-like characteristics. As you can surmise from the film’s title, Oliver doesn’t do the report on his mother. He finds old pictures in Vincent’s trash and interviews everyone he met on his former crusades all about the man who tries so hard to remain a mystery. On project day, each student gives their report in the school’s auditorium. The cheesy ending you know is coming still milks your tear ducts with heartfelt performances from Murray and Lieberher.
Without the star studded cast it boasts, St. Vincent would almost certainly be another underwhelming addition to the abominable-adult sub-category that Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, & Bad Grandpa seem to market to. Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, and Ann Dowd all make small yet respectable character appearances to round out the stellar cast.
Tragicomedy is difficult to navigate without being tainted in dreaded schmaltz (see Jarrod’s Obvious Child review for a proper definition). But Melfi and company steer towards the heart with St. Vincent and leave you feeling warm and perhaps even a little teary eyed with a story of saints, sinners, and the grey space that exists in between.