Even Bill Murray’s hipster cred can’t elevate ‘St. Vincent’
If the irreverent Army volunteer Bill Murray played in Stripes a few decades ago grew up to be a boozy, defeated, grumpy old man, he might be the character Murray plays in St. Vincent. Writer-director Theodore Melfi is certainly counting on Murray’s aging hipster persona to do most of the heavy lifting in this heartstring-tugging comedy about a young boy who adopts the misanthropic old geezer next door as his mentor and life coach.
Murray does an admirable job in the role, making sure his character Vincent registers as mostly unpleasant at first, without trading on the actor’s cool likeability. The problem is, Melfi’s material doesn’t offer enough support. The comedy isn’t always funny enough to sustain our interest in Vincent or the film; it’s haphazard or cruel at times, and without the balance of strong humor, the anarchic fizz of Murray’s appeal curdles into mean-spirited surliness. Factor in sentimental elements that tend to be canned and predictable, and we get a film that never quite hits its marks, despite a few genuinely funny and affecting moments.
Murray’s Vin is a cantankerous old coot who divides most of his time between his neighborhood bar, a sleazy strip club, and the Belmont racetrack. (The locale is apparently suburban Brooklyn, although Murray and co-star Melissa McCarthy give free rein to their broad Chicago accents.) Vin’s part-time (paid) girlfriend is Russian immigrant Daka (Naomi Watts), an exotic dancer at the club who’s now sporting a baby bump thanks to Vin. But most of the time, he’s a solitary guy, hanging around the house with his Persian cat, Felix—at least until Maggie (McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door.
In the process of divorcing her cheating husband, and working long hours at her medical tech job at the hospital, Maggie is forced to strike a deal with Vin to look after Oliver in the afternoons after school until she gets home from work. It’s just a financial arrangement for the ever-rapacious Vin. But since it’s Vin, not his mom, who coaches him in how to deal with a bully at his new school (by socking him in the nose), the boy begins to bond with the old curmudgeon.
It’s not as if Vin’s heart warms up to the boy, exactly—although he does lighten up when Oliver picks a longshot trifecta at the track—but filmmaker Melfi begins to leak in background information to make Vin more sympathetic. Like his service record as a decorated Vietnam vet. Or his regular visits to an assisted-living facility, where he dons a white doctor’s coat and spends time with a sweet but vague Alzheimer’s patient (Donna Mitchell).
The effect of these little glimmers of Vin’s softer side is cumulative. By the time the Irish priest (Chris O’Dowd) who teaches Oliver’s class at his Catholic school gives his pupils an assignment to find a real-life person they think qualified to be named a saint and do a report on them, we know where this movie is going.
O’Dowd’s underplayed comic performance as the deadpan priest is one of the film’s bright spots. (When Oliver hesitantly says, “I think I’m Jewish,” the priest blithely assures him the class is already populated with Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and “I don’t knows.”) McCarthy is very effective, too, as the harried mom, especially when she has a quiet but wryly articulate meltdown in the school principal’s office.
At other times, Melfi’s comic sensibility is off. It’s bad enough that Vin chews out any poor schmoe who mouths the platitude, “It is what it is,” at him, in the face of life’s tragedies. But when someone slams his hand with a hammer, slips on the floor, and knocks himself out, only to wake up later in a puddle of blood, it’s really not funny (even though the audience laughs, hoping for the best). When all else fails, Melfi shamelessly tries to score nostalgia points with vintage ’60s rock songs like “Somebody to Love” and “One Toke Over the Line.”
These scenes work against the film’s strengths (including a lovely, if fleeting, moment between Murray and Mitchell), in a well-meaning movie that never is quite what it wants to be.
ST. VINCENT (**1/2) With Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, and Chris O’Dowd. Written and directed by Theodore Melfi. A Weinstein release. Rated PG-13. 102 minutes.