Film Review- ‘St. Vincent’ (***1/2)

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Nothing like a little gambling to really open  a boy's eyes.
Nothing like a little gambling to really open a boy’s eyes.

“St. Vincent”  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, and Jaeden Lieberher

Written and directed by: Theodore Melfi

I occasionally get all bent out of shape when a movie is too easy, or if it feels like the filmmakers are reaching into our eye sockets and milking our tear ducts.  St. Vincent dares to walk that line between schmaltz and smooth, but manages to play it cool in the right moments.  It’s a film that even repeats a story we’ve seen before- a grumpy older man takes a kid under his wing and teaches him all of the life lessons.  However, excellent performances by each of the leads elevate what is normally a milquetoast story, resulting in a fine “dramedy” that confirms Bill Murray is still, well, Bill Murray.

Murray stars as Vincent McKenna, and we’re introduced to him in a most peculiar way- as a lazy, drunken buffoon with a filthy house, a cat, and a nasty disposition.  Well he’s nasty, but not entirely “dangerous”, per se, and thus not a complete miscreant.  It comes as no surprise, however, that he threatens all sorts of lawsuits when new neighbors move in and damage his car and tree in the process.  This brings about a meeting with said neighbors Maggie (McCarthy) and her polite, well-behaved son Oliver (Lieberher, in an outstanding performance).  Maggie has moved to start a new job, in which she will work a ton of hours and not necessarily be available.  That works, since the plot requires an excuse for Oliver and Vincent to begin hanging out.  That they do- Vincent reluctantly agrees to let the boy in one night that he’s locked out, and their odd dalliance begins.  Oliver, so straightforward, respectful, and easygoing, is the perfect foil for Vincent’s tomfoolery.  Vincent takes him everywhere from the horse racing track to his local watering hole, teaching him how to break someone’s nose and familiarizing himself with a wealth of new terminology.

This isn’t simply a film about a miscreant and his protegé, however.  Director Theodore Melfi has crafted a film, and Murray a performance, that progressively leads the audience from a place of dark humor to feel-good conclusion.  Like a cinematic onion, St. Vincent peels away the harder outer layers of the titular character to reveal a softer, resilient core.  The film intends to sell us on his faults for a greater reveal of his strengths.  Mind you, where we arrive at the end is in typical fashion, but it’s the matter in which we arrive that I do not mind.  Vincent has been hardened by a series of unfortunate events, but he keeps going, seemingly brightened by the arrival of his kid neighbor.  Oliver, noticing the potential for greatness in his new-found friend and in himself, changes right along with him.

The film is most impressive in a scene where our two leads visit a nursing home.  Our initial exposure to Vincent’s general disposition reminds us that we’re not sure if he’s there to con some poor resident, hustle supplies, or something else nefarious.  Imagine our surprise when he’s actually there for a positive reason.  Without revealing everything, Vincent dresses as a doctor, as it is the only way a particular patient will allow him access.  This is a revelatory scene, for we start to understand why Vincent does what he does, and why the film as led us to this point.  Subsequently, we begin to understand why Vincent attempts to raise money in the various ways that he does, from gambling to prescription drug theft.  We’re left wondering why anyone would need to resort to crime just to accomplish the simple goal of taking care of someone.

It is possible that Melfi may have had something to say about the state of our health care system, and the extreme sacrifices one must make in the name of Big Medicine, for Vincent’s life is far from what it could or should be (especially as a veteran).  The pains one has to endure simply to care for loved ones and themselves is well, not in tune with our abilities as a species.  Also, by placing a Jewish boy (Oliver) in a Catholic school, and casting funnyman Chris O’Dowd as a priest/teacher, Melfi dabbles in the possibility of a clash of religions, and seems to poke a little fun, but the feeling doesn’t linger.  It’s a wise choice to dabble, for the film would have felt different otherwise.

Instead of laying on the thick, sentimental cheese as it could have, St. Vincent allows the titular character’s actual accomplishments to shine through, and thus the film’s conclusion works.  The film quotes scripture by saying “a person shall not need attention for good deeds”, and Vincent abides by that, for he’s certainly not happy, certainly doesn’t want attention, even though enough has been taken from him.  This is all handled with just the right amount of subtlety and humor- the choice to take down a notch plays up Murray’s strengths and keeps the film from being over-maudlin.  It won’t win any awards, but fans of Murray, Melissa McCarthy, smarter-than-their-age young actors, or fast-talking Russian strippers (Watts) will be satisfied.

*note- make sure to stay through the end credits for a clear homage to Murray’s earlier film Caddyshack.  Those of you that are fans of that film will appreciate this coda.

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