Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard
Written by: Theodore Melfi
Running Time: 102 mins
Release date: 5th December 2014
In the 80’s, Bill Murray was one of the kings of comedy. With his deadpan delivery and ability to turn even the most mundane line into comedy gold, Murray could do no wrong. As most of the big comics of the time have fallen to the wayside, Murray’s star still holds strong, even if he prefers to be a cameo in Wes Anderson’s films. So when he lands a lead, everyone should sit up and pay attention. St. Vincent is the perfect part for his talents, even if the film does head down the slippery slope of sentimentality.
Vincent is a grumpy, acid-tongued old man who lives by himself in a grubby house. He drinks too much, gambles the very little money he has and has emotionless sex with Russian pregnant pole dancer, Daka. Oliver, a quiet, small boy arrives next door along with his separated mother, Maggie. Needing someone to look after her boy, Maggie strikes up a deal with Vincent and so the boy and the old man start to form an unlikely friendship, even though Vincent really doesn’t have a clue how to look after a boy.
First-time writer/director Theodore Melfi has taken a well-worn tale, there’s a sense of Gran Torino about this, and made a film that feels real. It deals with real matters: money, bullying, loneliness, coping with loss and divorce. It could have been overloaded with ideas and themes, yet they all sit neatly together and are played out with plenty of gusto and verve. You do find yourself relating to some of the issues.
It also has its heart in the right place. There are subplots that genuinely touch and you can’t help but be moved by what Vincent does for his rest home resident wife. Even his growing fondness for Oliver, as subtle as it is, makes Vincent more than just a wafer-thin character.
Some parts of the film do miss the point. It plays the sentimental card too heavily and there are the occasional contrivances in the plot strains that makes you think Melfi is trying to juggle too many ideas at once. It manages to stay on the straight and narrow by the down-to-earth humour. It’s refreshing to watch an American comedy that doesn’t rely on bodily function gags and old men lusting after younger women. The relationship between Vincent and Daka is less lushful, more a business transaction.
The performances are a mixed bag. Chris O’Dowd almost steals the film as a Catholic teacher, while Terrence Howard is completely wasted as a man who Vincent owes money to. It’s nice to see Melissa McCarthy playing more than just dumb and slimey. As Oliver’s tormented mother, it shows McCarthy is a talented actress and should be given more parts like this, where she can be funny and show pathos too.
Naomi Watts as Daka is one of the film’s problems. With a by-the-book, generic Russian accent, it sits uncomfortably among the much more controlled performances. It does make me wonder how she has managed to get a Golden Globe nomination, where a Golden Raspberry would be better.
Young Jaeden Lieberher, making his screen debut as Oliver, does a masterful job and gallantly holds his own among the big players. His scenes with Murray are, by turn, magical and pitch perfect and it wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see more of this talented youngster.
At the heart of the film is Murray. He still has that rough edge about him, that air of unpredictability that made him such a force in the comic world. He delivers sarcasm like no other and just a look can be just as funny as a whole line. You do get a sense that he might be after awards with this part and probably in any other year, he would be up there. Yet the competition this year is so strong, he will be sidelined.
For a first time writer and director, this is a reasonable effort made so much better by the presence of Murray. If you can get through the lashings of sugary schmaltz that the finale brings, then you are in for a satisfactory if flawed comedy drama. If your stomach isn’t strong enough, then just admire a comic genius at work.