Has anyone had as strange a career as Bill Murray? For years, one of the most popular comedians working, then sort of dropped out of the spotlight for a while and returned to star in largely independent films or to do cameos and co-starring roles in the films of his buddies. Now, it is apparently difficult to get hold of him unless he feels like working. The last few films he has appeared in seem to be the result of the filmmaker bumping into the actor and talking him up. He doesn't have an agent and doesn't seem interested in answering his phone.
More power to him. Especially because every film he has made in the last decade has been, at the very least, watchable. He really seems to take his work seriously and try to create roles that are fun to watch. Murray has done a number of glorified cameos, he regularly appears in Wes Anderson's films, and takes a fair number of supporting roles ("The Monuments Men" is a good example). And he occasionally headlines a film, if the director can track him down and get him to commit. This has led to some great work ("Lost In Translation", "Broken Flowers") and some not so great ("Hyde Park on the Hudson"). "St. Vincent", his newest, written and directed by newcomer Theodore Melfi, is not his best or worst. It falls comfortably in between.
The problem with "St. Vincent" is the story is only slightly better than a cable television movie. The actors help to elevate it, but they are unable to work miracles and help the narrative transcend the limitations of the genre completely.
Let's face it. As soon as Murray signed on, for whatever reason, Melfi used the allure of working with the fairly reclusive actor to attract everyone else to the cast. McCarthy is a star in her own right and could easily make six more versions of "Tammy" before anyone would utter a word. O'Dowd is rising up the Hollywood food chain and appears in a lot of projects. He didn't need to do this film either. Based on the budget, they didn't get money, they got a chance to act with Bill Murray.
Vincent (Murray) is an old, foul-mouthed codger who lives alone in his absolute wreck of a house in Brooklyn, his only companion a white Persian cat. He also has a regular appointment with Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian prostitute and Vincent likes to visit the track and drink whenever and wherever he can. He also does a weekly run to visit his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife in the care home he is struggling to pay for. Money is a problem, but he manages to scrape by. His bookie, Zucko (Terrence Howard), also wants the money Vincent owes him, so the old man has pressure coming at him from all sides. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a recently divorced mom, and her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move into the house next door. Oliver is an awkward kid who has trouble adjusting to the new Catholic school - his first day of school, he loses his cell phone and house keys and asks Vincent if he can use his phone to call his mom. Sensing an opportunity to earn some extra cash, Vincent offers to watch Oliver for a few hours everyday. As they spend more time together, Oliver learns how to be a little more self-sufficient and Vincent learns how to live life again.
We have all seen variations of this story at least a hundred times and most of those have been on television. But Murray's involvement takes it to another level. Attempting a mild Brooklyn-ese, Murray quickly introduces us to the boozy, foul-mouthed man that is Vincent. He lives alone - who would live with him – in a dirty, out-of-date house filled with everything he has ever owned, or been sent, strewn throughout the house. But as the story progresses, we learn more about him and these new revelations make him more interesting. I am not going to say that Vincent is the most original creation ever, he isn't, but Murray does manage to make him seem more human. Obviously, everything about him is meant to portray him as the ultimate cranky man, and much like the other widely overused cliche - the hooker with the heart of gold - Vincent is a cranky man ripe for change who will ultimately be a lovable cranky man. And the change comes when he meets the young boy who moves in next door. Because he is now earning cash as Oliver’s babysitter, Vincent drags him along when he does his normal routine; the track, the care facility, a bar he frequents. And the more time they spend together, the more Vincent realizes he needs to give his new buddy some guidance and instruction. They make a quick stop and Oliver immediately runs into some of the bullies from his school. Later, Vincent gives him a lesson in defending himself. You could write the film yourself.
The thing that sets Vincent apart, in addition to his devil-may-care attitude, is he continues to be who he is, despite the small changes. When he gives Oliver the boxing training, he still has a drink and cigarette in his hand. In fact, he almost always has a drink and a cigarette in his hand. When a character is this predictable, it is nice when they don’t immediately, quickly or completely change. That would seem even more unrealistic.
As Murray continues to guide us through Vincent’s journey, Vincent remains sarcastic and aloof, but you can see there is a connection between the older man and his charge. It is a nice, measured performance that relies heavily on the actor to make it work. In a less accomplished actor's hands, it would simply seem too cut and dried.
Melissa McCarthy plays Maggie, a newly divorced mom with a new job as an MRI technician at a hospital. This is all very new to her and you can see the stress etched into her face; there has been a lot of change in a very short amount of time and it is taking everything she has to keep it together in front of her son. This is why she reluctantly agrees to let Vincent watch Oliver - she basically has no other choice.
McCarthy is very good as Maggie, she gets a lot of the character right and makes her seem very real. She loves her son, but as the primary bread-winner, she now has a job that requires long hours. She can't leave Oliver home alone, so she leaves him with the only alternative. McCarthy dials it down for this performance and it works. She brings a lot of honesty to Maggie and anyone who has experienced the same situation will see parts of their life in this role.
Speaking of the hooker with a heart of gold? Naomi Watts plays Daka, a pregnant Russian prostitute who regularly meets with Vincent in his ramshackle house. She is good, but there isn't anything outstanding going on here.
One of the many other cliches appears as Zucko, the bookie played by Terrence Howard. A pretty standard rendition of this stock character. What happened to Howard? This performance seems like a real throwback for him, something he might have done a few decades ago. Why is he doing this small, unspectacular role? I don’t get it.
Chris O'Dowd plays Father Geraghty, Oliver's new teacher at the Catholic school. Father Geraghty is the type of teacher anyone would want; funny and sarcastic, he knows the limits of his students and how far to push them. His too-loud observations are funny and seem to fit right in. He seems to be saying exactly what we are thinking yet probably wouldn't say.
Jaeden Lieberher is very good as Oliver. He is an awkward little kid dealing with a lot of change in his life. He doesn't understand a lot of it, so it doesn't affect him in a negative way. But he isn't immune to the cyclone of events surrounding him and you can see all of this in the young actor. When a child actor is good, and they are playing a pretty normal kid, it is difficult to tell if they are demonstrating any true ability or if they are simply being a kid. I’m not sure about Lieberher; he’s good in this film, but I’m not sure if that means he has any talent.
The best part of the film depicts how Oliver is greeted by some of the bullies in his new school, how he handles it and the ultimate outcome of this relationship. It is not necessarily what you might expect.
Writer and director Theodore Melfi fashions a very predictable, even pedestrian narrative to tell the story of Vincent and Oliver. You know where every story is going to go as soon as that thread of the narrative is introduced. That said, as the film nears it's climax, get out the hankies. Despite the predictable nature of the story, it will still move you to tears.
I just wish "St. Vincent" had taken a few unexpected turns along the way.