The story of an unlikely friendship between a charismatic youngster and an aging grump has been told many times.
It’s a cinematic formula, often used to wheedle sentiment from the audience. So, my love of Bill Murray was St. Vincent’s only real attraction, and even at that, the comic genius has been successfully reprising the grouchy wise-ass character for years now.
My reservations about the film, it turns out, weren’t entirely wrong. The plot is predictable, and reaches for an irritatingly heartwarming feel. Happily though, I was also right about Bill Murray—he will never fail me, not even in what is, sorry, a mediocre movie.
The presence of multiple pitifully burdened characters in St. Vincent is the first hint of sentimental overkill: The single mother in the midst of a nasty divorce; the pregnant prostitute with a big heart; the devoted husband, dutifully tending to a sick spouse—all tropes, which, heartbreaking as they may be, can gel into a cheap ploy rather than an effectively moving story when crammed into a single narrative.
The story begins when single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her pre-teen son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door to Vincent (Bill Murray), a cranky old man wallowing, satisfied, in mediocrity and solitude. As the movers pull up to the new house, they accidentally run over a part of Vincent’s fence and break a few branches off a tree in his backyard: a scene clearly meant to portend an imminent collision of character. Shortly after, a clever shot presents the essence of what is to come: Vincent standing before his rundown fence watering his comically arid lawn, while Oliver sits on his front steps, symmetrically opposed, locked out of the house. It’s clear the houses don’t quite fit together; that the neighbors have little in common.
This is what St. Vincent is about: misleading appearances. When Vincent lets the boy into his house, it marks the beginning of his unexpected position as Oliver’s ‘babysitter.’ Because the boy appears so naïve after being bullied on his first day at school, and because the old man seems so un-nurturing, paying for sex and drinking excessively, the repeated use of the term ‘babysitter’ is good for laughs. Repeatedly.
Casting Murray as Vincent actually makes a lot of sense in retrospect. In the ‘70s and ‘80s Murray was a wildly popular comic, for good reason. He was, really, a character actor—frat-boy comedy and blockbusters were what he did best. As he got older though, Murray took on more varied, dramatic roles. The Bill Murray of the new millenium, the protagonist from deadpan masterpieces such as Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003) or Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) is the perfect antihero. Far from being typecast, Murray has simply achieved a particular persona. Call it a “Murrayness.” He’s aged honestly, and the lines in his face, as well as his permanently amused look, are not just well earned, but make him disarming and edgy all at once. There is an unpretentious quality in his acting that was vital for the part of Vincent, and he really delivered.
Murray and young Leiberher also have undeniable chemistry on screen, and the characters are not as one-dimensional as they might seem in the film’s trailer. Vincent is a controversial mentor figure, gambling and drinking, but Oliver is a unique kid, who turns out to be quite perceptive. The intergenerational bond that forms between the two characters is magically believable, and therefore unusually touching.
St. Vincent does possess an endearing earnestness that saves it from being a sentimental disaster. Director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi has made a modest film, perhaps heavy-handed at times, but, thankfully, not embarrassing.
St. Vincent is currently screening at Cinéma du Parc, the Cineplex Odeon Forum, and various cinemas across Montreal.
An avid film-goer and passionate cook, Maxine Napier Macdonald received a BA in cultural studies from McGill University last spring.