When a Sinner becomes a…
There’s only one moment in St. Vincent when Bill Murray looks like his title character. He’s extending his hand to a cute kid who has just been bullied to the ground. The sun’s rays peek out around his head as he leans down towards the camera. All that are missing are choirs of angels in the background. Otherwise Murray, playing a Vietnam-vet grouch-next-door, is not your typical saint. Aiding him with an alcohol problem, cigarettes, and a lousy outlook, the movie makes sure that much is clear.
As Vince, a sour grump from Sheepshead Bay, Murray still manages to provide warmth to a role that typically requires frost. That doesn’t mean he isn’t cold to the touch. Vince is mostly an archetype—a bad gambler in debt with a bad attitude—barking at bankers and avoiding loan sharks (Terrence Howard). But, because he’s played by Murray, it’s easy to look past his acerbic tone and derogatory demeanor. By the time his new neighbors pull up, you’re ready to watch him thaw into the sentimental puddle he’s been repressing for so long.
The emotional perpetrators next door are Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a recently divorced nurse, and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), a wonderfully bright-eyed pre-pubescent. Upon initial resistance, Vince begins to mellow, which means he starts baby-sitting after school when Maggie has late shifts at the hospital. That allows Oliver to get a taste of Vince’s diverse palette of vices. They go to the bar, the horse track, and a strip club, watching Naomi Watts play a pregnant Russian pole-dancer with a heart of gold. Later, they drive to a hospice care home and some of Vince’s secrets begin to slip. Baby-sitter soon becomes father figure, dolloping out life lessons.
From here, the movie marches to a predictable beat, navigating its place in the pantheon of other odd-couple relationships. It’s almost required that Vince teach Oliver how to fight. But if some of these clichés make you discredit writer-director Theodore Melfi’s first feature, then you also have to appreciate his resistance to some. He textures Maggie with more to do than be worried-mom and gives Oliver a refreshingly outspoken intellect, often lacking in these types of small, shy parts. And then there’s Murray.
You know eventually this story will turn sappy but Murray still surprises you when it does. His bad mouth, bruised exterior, and disheveled home start to get cleaned up. His role in Scrooged transitions into Meatballs just with more fatigue. In several scenes, Melfi films Murray’s unmoving profile behind the steering wheel, watching him drive past his house and back in to his driveway, toppling over his picket fence. He doesn’t even check his mirrors. Through one lens it’s a sad portrait of an aging drunk. Through another it’s Murray just exploding another groundhog on a golf course.
Melfi lets his actors (including Chris O’Dowd as Oliver’s Catholic schoolteacher) act, but he throws too many added plotlines into the mix. Do we really need a school assembly finale to initiate the tears? It’s effective but unnecessary. When you have Bill Murray– watering dead plants, humming along to Bob Dylan– you don’t need to surround him with more formula. Let his cinematic halo light up the room by itself.