St. Vincent Dir. Theodore Melfi

[The Weinstein Company; 2014]

Styles: comedy, dramedy, grump-with-a-heart-of-gold
Others: Nebraska, About Schmidt, American Splendor, Stripes

I don’t need to tell you that there are few actors as universally beloved as Bill Murray. His presence in a film isn’t a guaranteed mark of overall quality, but it’s at least a guarantee that you’ll get to watch Bill Murray. This is usually enough. Sure, there are plenty of opportunities these days to see Murray shine in films that would succeed without his help, but it’s almost more fascinating to watch him carry a film that would fall flat without him: while plenty of people call What About Bob? and Groundhog Day “classics,” how good would they really be without Murray? Even just hearing him voice a hideous CGI Garfield is somehow comforting (though that, of course, is one of the few movies even he couldn’t salvage).

St. Vincent wouldn’t be as bad as all that without Murray, but his scenery-chewing makes the film’s flaws substantially less glaring. Murray turns the defeated boomer/Vietnam vet Vincent McKenna, seemingly written as a slightly sweetened New York version of Hank Chinaski, into something more like the logical endpoint for the characters he used to play in Stripes, Meatballs, and the like. Those “lovable loser” types were charming and cute when Murray was in his twenties and thirties; in real life, though, they’d be destined to live out their twilight as Vincent does here, ravaged by age, alcoholism, and one too many losses.

Break character. Okay, straight up: St. Vincent made me cry. It wasn’t like I was totally bawling, but it wasn’t the proverbial single tear either. The same thing happened when I saw Nebraska.

Resume character. The plot and construction are trite, but reasonably effective: single mother Maggie and her smartass wussy kid Oliver (Melissa McCarthy and Jaden Lieberher, respectively) move in next door to hard-luck Vincent, and their relationship starts on a bad note. Through a series of incidents, Vincent ends up babysitting Oliver after school. As Oliver warms to the prickly Vincent, he is exposed to a seedy world of fighting, gambling, drinking, and “ladies of the night,” but also discovers a basic decency underneath Vincent’s crotchety exterior. The push/pull between Vincent-the-asshole and Vincent-the-hurt-good-guy lends the film much of its dramatic tension; the results are predictable.

Break character. With Nebraska, it was likely because it made me think about the inevitability of losing my dad; with St. Vincent, it is probably because I’ve already lost my grandpa, whose parallels with Murray’s character here (war veteran, alcoholic, grump with a scabbed-over heart of gold) are substantial. It’s a dirty cinematic trick to play the universal anxiety of losing parents/grandparents for sniffles, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

Resume character. Is that really a problem, though? Most of Murray’s most beloved films are traditional three-act, happy ending affairs; it is the subtlety of his performance and his bittersweet/tragicomic gaze that make such movies worth watching, not their construction. St. Vincent is unlikely to go on many “Bill Murray Top Five” lists, but it’s still a chance to watch a master at work. I say get it where you can, while you can.

Break character. Yeah, St. Vincent isn’t actually very good, but it doesn’t matter. I mean, take off the rose-colored glasses, and It’s a Wonderful Life is treacle, too… a lot of “classics” are. St. Vincent is not destined for classic status, and it’s a damn sight from even being as good a film as Nebraska, but fuck it. Sometimes, you just want a movie to make you cry and miss your grandpa. If you have a problem with that, you’re the worst kind of callous asshole and are officially not invited to my birthday party.

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