Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray) is a drunk degenerate gambler who uses the services of a pregnant Russian stripper and prostitute named Daka (Naomi Watts). Vincent hates most people and other living creatures other than his cat and that includes his new next door neighbors Maggie and her son Oliver (Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie is recently divorced from her philandering husband and has taken a job at a hospital running CAT scans. Maggie has to work long hours and can’t pick Oliver up at school so she makes sure he has a cell phone and keys to the house to let himself in. On Oliver’s first day at his new Catholic school, some boys start picking on him and, during gym class, someone steals his phone, keys and clothes. Locked out of the house and having no phone, Oliver asks Vincent if he can come in and call his mom. During the conversation, Vincent offers to keep Oliver at his house…for $12 an hour. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Maggie agrees. Oliver seems to be happy at Vincent’s. Vincent’s cat takes to Oliver right away. In the days that follow, Oliver is introduced to racehorse betting, drinking at a bar and Abbott and Costello. Vincent also teaches Oliver a way to protect himself from a bully that comes in handy when a game of dodgeball gets out of hand during gym class. Vincent even takes Oliver to a nursing home to visit Sandy (Donna Mitchell), a woman about Vincent’s age who appears to have dementia. Vince puts on a doctor’s white coat and a stethoscope and listens to Sandy’s heart as he talks to her. There’s sadness in his eyes during these visits. He collects Sandy’s dirty clothes and takes them home to wash them. The fight Oliver got into leads to a call from the school to Maggie for a meeting. There she explains all the pressures she is under due to the divorce and work and now her ex-husband is taking her to family court to gain full custody of Oliver. Everyone around him is dealing with issues while Vincent appears to be oblivious to it all, drinking and gambling his way through life with Oliver occasionally at his side.
Bill Murray has made a career out of playing guys who don’t seem to give a damn about what others think of him. Some of his most memorable movies, “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes,” “Groundhog Day” and others feature a lead character that either lives his life on his own terms despite what others may say or actively tries to rub the faces of others in his opinion of them. Murray appears to live that way in real life if what we see in the media is true. He is famously difficult on some movie shoots, is quick to decline offers if he just doesn’t feel like working and is notorious for dropping in on dinners, parties and other gatherings and washing dishes or picking up the check and dares those in attendance to tell people about his being there claiming no one will believe them. Bill Murray is kind of an urban legend that is often true. In “St. Vincent,” Murray is playing “Bill Murray” turned up to 11 and that’s just fine.
While Murray’s Vincent does some pretty despicable things, he also will come through with a good deed done in a somewhat peculiar way. When he catches bullies beating up on Oliver, he threatens to attack their mothers then breaks one of the bully’s skateboards. These flashes of compassion wrapped in violence make Vincent nearly impossible to dislike. Considering he’s played by Bill Murray, he’d have to kill a basket full of puppies and kittens for the audience to truly hate him. Murray is like the grumpy uncle or grandfather who’s really a softie at heart. Granted, the softness if buried under miles of thorns, jagged rocks and broken glass, but it’s there. Vincent is a lovable drunken lecherous old man who needs an unconventional family far more than he knows even when he’s trying to push them away. Murray embodies Vincent fully and is able to turn all his deceitfulness, larceny and excess into traits the audience is willing to overlook.
While there are three well-known actors used to sell the movie on the poster, it is young Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver who shines almost as much as Murray. His role is written as someone who is far smarter than his years and sometimes approaches sitcom excess in his snark; however, Lieberher is a sweet-faced young actor who is able to stand up to Murray’s irascible curmudgeon. Lieberher seems to be unflappable as Oliver. When his keys, clothes and phone disappear from his gym locker, Oliver is upset but not deterred. He continues school in his gym clothes despite the looks and ridicule he gets from the other students. He isn’t afraid to stand up to the bullies even though he has no idea of how to fight them. Oliver is unafraid of walking through his new neighborhood even though he isn’t quite sure how to get home. Oliver is a good kid and Lieberher plays him with a kind of uneasy confidence that is endearing.
Both Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts are excellent as Maggie and Daka respectively. McCarthy is able to display her comedic talents as the harried single mother but also shines in the more dramatic scenes as well. Watts lays on the Russian accent a bit thick at times but she handles it well as the pregnant hooker/stripper Daka. Her lack of understanding in some social situations and her abrasive, no-nonsense personality combine to make Daka a very funny character. Daka also cares a great deal for Vincent and it is more than just a business relationship. She also likes Oliver even though their relationship starts off a bit rocky. Watts is nearly unrecognizable as the pregnant Lady of the Evening and seems to be having a great deal of fun playing the part.
The storytelling in “St. Vincent” is somewhat uneven with long stretches of mild misbehavior followed by sudden bursts of evil. All these moral downturns are preceded by some kind of crisis that forces Vincent to make a sudden and rash decision and he’s never held accountable for his actions. Some could argue that fate holds him accountable with all troubles life throws his way but that’s too quaint and easy an answer. He still has huge bills and debts to a bookie that aren’t taken care of but the story conveniently forgets all this to give us heartwarming moments. It makes for a lovely and sentimental movie but it also makes for one that loses touch with reality.
“St. Vincent” is rated PG-13 for language, alcohol and tobacco use, mature thematic material and sexual content. Murray smokes and drinks through the whole movie. Other characters smoke and drink as well. Concepts of dealing with personal loss, addiction and sickness are main themes of the film. There is one sex scene early in the movie with no nudity. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.
“St. Vincent” is manipulative filmmaking. It shows you Vincent being mostly a horrible person who deals with people of questionable character and motives. Vincent appears to be irredeemable. “Appears” is the operative word in that sentence as the character has a deep history and layers of goodness he keeps hidden from the world probably to protect himself from the pain he feels. It’s only as we approach the end of the film that we get a glimpse at the real Vincent buried under empty bourbon bottles and cigarette butts. “St. Vincent” twists your emotions and wrings tears from your eyes in an ending that’s about as sappy as you’ll ever see. It isn’t fair…but it’s satisfying nonetheless.
“St. Vincent” gets five stars out of five.
Here are my thoughts recorded immediately after seeing the movie.
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