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Directors of For Sama

Lulu Wang (The Farewell)
Ritesh Batra (Photograph)
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Review: St. Vincent

 Here's Michael's weekend review of St. Vincent, currently expanding to more theaters...

There is a moment in Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent where it looks like the film might deviate from the relentlessly predictable path it’s been traveling up to that point. Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) is the runty new kid at school, so of course he immediately picks up a squad of dedicated bullies, and of course they manage to locate him in a parking lot while he waits for the return of his crabby, neglectful babysitter, Vincent (Bill Murray). Movie law dictates that this is the cue for Vincent to swoop in to put a hurting on the bullies, thus revealing a new likeable side to this misanthrope, and sure enough Bill Murray’s seedy guardian shows up on cue. Only instead of intervening, he leans against his broken down old jalopy, lights up a cigarette, and watches Oliver get the snot pummeled out of him.

Is Vincent really going to just sit there and do nothing, we wonder? Does he side with the bullies? Does he think this will build character? Or is it that Vincent doesn’t think rescue operations are covered by the eleven dollars an hour Melissa McCarthy’s single mom neighbor is paying him to watch Oliver while she works triple shifts at the hospital? Is it possible this guy is a genuine bum and not the cuddly curmudgeon we are expecting? 


It turns out to be a false alarm. Not only does Vincent break the head bully’s skateboard over his knee and threaten to do unspeakable things to all their mothers, but in no time at all Murray has Oliver wailing on a punching bag in his garage so he can learn self-defense. It sets a pattern that St. Vincent will stick to right up to its final frames, tiptoeing up to the edge of outrageousness before fleeing into the safe embrace of heart-warming formula.

As everything from Groundhog Day to The Life Aquatic to Wild Things proves, there are few greater pleasures in the movies than watching Bill Murray play a jerk, but unfortunately Murray’s irascible next-door neighbor arrives in St. Vincent pre-redeemed. The movie is so eager to reassure us that Vincent’s gruff exterior is hiding a big ol’ teddy bear, that the script never develops any teeth. Sure, the script says, Vincent may drink to excess, run up big gambling debts and generally treat everyone like garbage, but see how he struggles to pay for the inpatient care for his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife? And did you notice his Vietnam medals? Plus, look at how he dotes on the pregnant over-the-hill Russian prostitute he hires (Naomi Watts of all people). At least other redemption-of-an-asshole movies like As Good As It Gets and the similar, and far superior, About a Boy have the sense to enjoy letting the protagonist be a genuine prick for a while before they set about the business of rehabilitating him.

As if all that wasn’t enough to hammer home the point, Melfi introduces a subplot about Oliver’s kindly priest teacher (Chris O’Dowd) assigning the students the task of doing a report on a person in their life who meets the criteria for modern day sainthood, a report which they will deliver at a big school assembly with the subject of their speech present. So on top of everything, we have this sure to be sappy finale barreling down on us the whole movie like a freight train driven by Patch Adams.

Melfi must have been beside himself with his luck at landing this cast of comedy heavy hitters. As a director, he doesn’t show much interest in enhancing the comedy with visual wit or timing, but you can at least give him credit for knowing to get out of the way and let his cast do their thing. They reciprocate by using the sheer force of their talent to extract more spark from this tired material than one would imagine possible. Naomi Watts gets the prize for doing the most with the least by turning her off the shelf good-hearted hooker character into an original, offbeat presence. McCarthy proves that she remains an arresting comic presence even when dialed back to a reactive straight role, and the kid is good at planting his feet and giving a direct performance with no particularly glaring traces of kid acting. Chris O’Dowd even manages to deliver a few grins with his funny teacher routine. 

The character of Vincent may be the one being pushed for sainthood, but it is Murray the personality that the film wants to sanctify. The Internet (understandably) uses “Bill Murray” as shorthand for pure celebrity awesomeness, sort of like the movie star equivalent of bacon, and it has reached the point where I fear the meme-ification of Murray threatens to overshadow Murray the actor. Thankfully, while St. Vincent may be willing to coast on its star’s legendary persona, Murray the actor isn’t ready to start phoning it in just yet. Throughout the film Murray puts forth a heroic effort to punch through the script’s formula machinations with some authenticity. It might not be enough to rescue St. Vincent from the familiarity of its story, but it is reassuring to see. C+

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Reader Comments (3)

Oscar chances?

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCartegna

Fun review, Michael! That Patch Adams line killed me. Maybe he should be a character on AHS.

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Cartegna - to put it bluntly, none. Globe comedy nod for Murray, maybe

Brookesboy - American Horror Story: Oscar Bait

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

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