Movie Review: St. Vincent

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. (IMDb)

St. Vincent tells a typical story, in a fairly conventional way. We’ve seen the “irresponsible bad role model with a heart of gold” bit in tons of films (Bad Santa, Bad News Bears, etc…), and Murray’s role could be just another drop in the bucket – the film would be nowhere near as charming without its leading man. The film takes typical turns of character and is formulaic, almost endearingly so, but saves enough room to allow the actors, and specifically Bill Murray, to really shine.

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It’s a joy to watch Bill Murray play Vincent McKenna, the cantankerous old bastard with a hidden heart of gold. For fans of Murray (including myself), he’s playing the type of role he excels at – a bit of an a**hole with an acerbic charm.  Truthfully, I picture him to be like this in real life (especially given his more recent and hilarious turn playing himself in Zombieland). He manages to make a hard-drinking, bad-tempered slob into a saint. Murray is absolutely marvelous in this film – the nominations are well deserved.

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Jaeden Lieberher plays young Oliver, the runt next door. He is a delightful partner in crime for Vincent – curious, wide-eyed and intelligent – and bitingly funny. Lieberher and Murray have great chemistry together. Vincent provides Oliver with a strange education of fighting, gambling, confidence and cursing; building a bond full of genuine respect and friendship.

Melissa McCarthy is refreshingly great in a role which doesn’t require her to use slapstick or appalling jokes to win over an audience.  She’s sweet, funny and wonderfully real as a struggling single mom starting out on her own.  Naomi Watts’ role as a pregnant Russian stripper and “lady of the night” is absolutely bizarre (as is her nomination for the supporting actress Golden Globe), but adds a bit of off colour humor to the story. Chris O’Dowd turns up in a small and random role as a teacher at Oliver’s prep school.

First time writer-director Theodore Melfi plays it safe, allows Vincent’s redeeming qualities to shine before he goes too far off the proverbial “curmudgeonly-deep-end” – predictably, there’s more to Vincent than meets the eye. Through Oliver (and his school project about modern day saints) we learn more about Vincent, his complex character, his life and his circumstances. There’s a sincere, if overly-sentimental payoff with a tear jerking salute to Vincent.  Call it schmaltz if you must, but it’s effective and absolutely wonderful, sure to leave you with a lump in your throat, a few tears in your eyes and a feel-good shout in your lungs.

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As predictable (and sometimes shamefully pandering) as this film is – it’s a joy to watch, specifically because of the natural and affecting performance from Murray. Without Murray’s performance, the film most definitely would have sunk under the weight of its predictability and sentimentality.  After the Toronto International Film Festival premiere, a misty-eyed Murray revealed he’d had a hunch that the first-time writer-director’s project would work “if we could avoid being schmaltzy,” adding, “We almost did.

Who else but Bill Murray can take this bad-tempered, chain smoking, foul-mouthed philanderer and make him into a sort of patron saint of lost causes? Let’s hear it for St. Bill Murray.

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