Oliver's parents have just divorced and he goes to live in a new house with his mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy). Their new neighboor, Vincent (Bill Murray), is a Vietnam vet who's just learnt that he's completely broke and he soon accepts a gig as a baby-sitter to Oliver. Vincent introduces Oliver to his world - bars, horse races, his stripper girlfriend (Naomi Watts), to Maggie's utter dismay, but also helps him stand up to school bullies. The two end up forming an unlikely friendship.
A famous filmmaker once reckoned that the history of the movies is a history of an artform that strives to be liked. That makes movies different from say, music and painting. Of course he wasn’t speaking of the often tough and belligerent cinema that scores with festival juries. He was talking about Hollywood.
Now there’s nothing too wrong with wanting to be liked unless you go begging for it. The stink of desperation is as repellant as a charmer who doesn’t really need you for anything but acclaim.
All of this is a way to frame up St. Vincent, a low budget feelgood pic that reeks of sweetness, written and directed by debut filmmaker Theodore Melfi. The script made the Hollywood ‘Blacklist’ back in 2011. That’s a sort of pop chart for ‘best unproduced’ scripts where LA’s power brokers rank the top projects that didn’t make the season. I guess it’s their way of saying ‘we’ve got more goodies to come (if only the Town would listen.’) In this case that hype turned out to be hype. I can imagine the pitch: Unlikely Friendship Movie. Its ET but you’ve got a drunken gambling all screwing grouchy old man in the cute alien part.
At one time Jack Nicholson was attached (if you’re thinking As Good As It Gets you’re on target). Instead Melfi got Bill Murray, who plays the title role, and appears to have three distinctions: stubble, a seemingly infinite capacity to complain in ways both funny and wise and a life devoid of pals. Vincent ends up as babysitter to the tween kid next-door Oliver (Jaeden Liebeher), who is small, smart, and damned to be bullied. Always short of cash, Vincent charges 12 bucks an hour to the boys’ mum Maggie (Melissa McCarthy). She’s new to the neighbourhood, overworked and freshly divorced; Melfi may as well have McCarthy wear a ‘vulnerable’ sign.
Melfi doesn’t so much write scenes but set pieces. That means St.Vincent flies by and moment-to-moment it has that buoyant bubbling feel of good stand-up, but none of it sinks in.
In the story, Vincent offers a sentimental education to Oliver; tutorials in street smarts, one-liners, self-defence tactics, race track betting etiquette and the innocent pleasures of propping up a bar at 2pm on a week day. This yields some nice moments: Vince schools Oliver in the art of the chicken dance against some vintage juke box rock (and just so we can enjoy the moment for that much longer Melfi has it play in slo-mo). In return Vincent is rewarded with loyalty and affection from a kid who hasn’t learnt yet to be weary, wary and care less. He’s alive to experience as only those with no lives they can truly call their own yet, can ever be.
Melfi can’t let this situation breathe. He piles on the jeopardy in the plot: there’s a stroke, a custody battle and a war of competing ego and territory between Maggie and Vince over what’s good for the boy.
This is Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa cleaned of all subversive, rude glee. Instead Melfi and co. makes everything and everyone nice, even Vince’s loan shark Zucco (Terence Howard). He must be the first such creature in the history of the world who appears reluctant to collect. For sex Vincent has a pregnant pole-dancer who tricks on the side called Danka. She is played by Naomi Watts, complete with improbable Russian accent. Danka is a hard-boiled cliché: a Slavic tough-nut with no firewall between each nasty right-on life lesson thought and a mouth that has yet to find a fresh border. Yet, she’s never a threat. Instead, she is, shamefully something of a figure of fun.
"This is Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa cleaned of all subversive, rude glee."
I’m not certain we’re meant to think Vincent is a bastard. He’s not bad, merely sad. He’s a harmless nuisance. A curmudgeon with no sin to redeem. Vincent is just an old man who has seen war and a lot of disappointment. This is what makes the film's excuse for a plot so pointless: Oliver must seek out a ‘modern Saint’ for a special school project. You can guess the rest.
There have been some brave souls who suggest Melfi and co. wanted to make a movie about the corrosive knock-on effect of a society that isolates the aged, the single mother and the underclass. That’s a scream of protest worth hearing but I think St.Vincent is far too modest a project to live up to such a lofty ambition. Like a lot of small-minded movies, its idea of politics is to suggest that it's better to live clean, behave middle-class and act white.
Instead I reckon it’s merely a star vehicle with pretensions. It’s an old-fashioned tear jerker with a great lived-in look, and an unfussy visual style that feels alive (while the script is dying on its feet). I loved Melfi’s flat-matte vision of Brooklyn, blissfully free of that sparkly golden dewed chintz, so fashionable in domestic dramas. The acting is fine, though each performance seems intended to fulfill a specific mood: so Chris O’Dowd’s jolly priest is light relief and Donna Mitchell’s old lady, Vince’s special retirement home friend, is poignancy incarnate. Occasionally Melfi’s set-ups have an absurdist sting. The film's best scene finds Vince stretched out on a lawn lounge, plugged into an ancient walkman, fresh drink on side table while a goggled Oliver circles him with lawn mower, a fog of dirt rising from the scorched earth of the old man’s back yard like dry ice.
Still, the only reason to see the movie is Murray. It’s a fat part with a built-in lump for the throat. Murray’s trademarks: the long, long contemptuous stare in the face of disappointment, the sudden bark, the sarcastic head bob, the kill-me-now-bitterness here don’t feel like an actor’s shtick, but the defense mechanisms of a guy who’s worn out trying to be the old man anyone can like. But then Murray’s character belongs in a different movie to this. St.Vincent isn’t so much a film but a sort of public service ad intended to reassure us that we’re all responsible for the world. It’s the kind of movie needing to be liked so much you duck once you see it coming.