At a certain point, actors mainly just become the guy who is themselves in every movie. Christopher Walken’s been doing it for years. For the last little bit, Bill Murray seemed to be on the verge of joining Walken as just being Bill Murray, but he always managed to make his performances varied and nuanced enough so as to avoid that. His work with Wes Anderson often gets sited, rightly, as some of the actor’s best work, having fallen right at home in the deadpan, eyebrow-raising world that filmmaker creates. There again, Murray could have just been the guy who does that for his whole career. However, the man who photobombs and gives advice at random people’s weddings doesn’t seem content to just be the guy people think he ought to be and has proven this with his newest role, that of an angry, alcoholic loser (at least on the surface) in the film St. Vincent.
The feature written-and-directed-by debut for Theodore Melfi, St. Vincent is the kind of movie you’ve seen before — an indie dramedy with a jangly score, old music on the soundtrack, quirky characters, a kid who’s way smarter and more emotionally advanced than most kids would be, and heart string-tugging stuff for good measure — but with the added bonus of some truly phenomenal performances from some superb actors. The material isn’t bad by any means, but the actors involved surely elevate it to a higher level and really commit to the film’s less funny moments. At the heart of this is Murray, who creates a multifaceted, deeply troubled character and still manages to make him likable, or at least relateable, even at his worst.
Murray plays the titular Vincent, or “Vin” to the people who know him. He’s a boozer, a degenerate gambler, he hates everyone in the world, has nothing going for him, and whose only real companions are a sourpuss cat and his pregnant Russian prostitute girlfriend (Naomi Watts) who demands payment every time they see each other. You know, like a prostitute. He’s got no money and owes a considerable sum to a mid-level loan shark (Terrence Howard). He drives him drunk one night, crashes into his own fence, goes inside and falls over, smashing his head on a cabinet. Basically, things are’t great.
He’s awakened following this night by the sound of a moving truck hitting his car (and also blaming them for his fence and a tree). The movers have been hired by his new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a single mother to Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) who works as a Cat Scan tech for the local hospital. They don’t get off on the right foot, given Vin’s proclivity for nastiness, but when Oliver loses his keys on the first day of school, Vin is put into the position to look after him, eventually becoming his paid after school guardian and the two begin going on outings for Vin’s life, including the race track, the bar, and a nursing home.
We get to see who Vin really is versus who he portrays himself to be, or what his life has led him to be, through his interactions with Oliver, teaching him how to defend himself, how to bet on horses, and how to generally do things a 9 year old probably wouldn’t learn how to do otherwise. These actions concern Maggie, but she is forced to work late hours to try to prove she can keep custody from her cheating and vindictive husband, though eventually that comes to a head when Oliver’s teacher (Chris O’Dowd) tells her the boy’s been fighting. Vin might not be a nice man, but is he a good influence on Oliver after all?
As I said, a lot of this movie follows a path you’ve seen before, but the journey there is an enjoyable one. O’Dowd gives a really charming performance as the with-it priest/teacher and Watts plays a character she doesn’t normally get to play which is refreshing. Young Lieberher is fantastic and is surely one of the best child actors I’ve seen in a movie for awhile. Very real and down to earth, especially opposite someone like Murray. If Watts is going outside of her norm, then McCarthy is twice as much but in the other direction. She’s so lovely as the frustrated single mom trying to do the best she can, especially in a breakdown scene when meeting with Oliver’s teacher and principal. She’s been all but typecast in movies of late as the brash and crude lady who doesn’t give no craps, but seeing her play someone who isn’t a caricature, even a well-played one, is immensely satisfying.
And in the center of everything is Murray who gets to have his funny moments, but is at heart a profoundly unhappy man failing at every turn while still, in some way, trying to do good, and his mentorship, twisted as it might be, to the little boy gives him a sense of purpose he probably hasn’t had in a long while. This is the Gran Torino of comedy characters; he’s gruff and unfriendly, until you peel back the surface. You feel for him each time he makes a poor decision for the right reason and the hardships he goes through, even the more “movie-ish” ones are grounded because of the performance.
St. Vincent is a warm and friendly comedy in spite of its bristly main character and the great performances overcome some of the script’s sappier moments.