Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Bill Murray carries St. Vincent with an affecting, sustained performance that resonates through the rudimentary material. He plays the titular Vincent, a misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic, war veteran that lives by himself and perpetually falls into debt due to a gambling addiction. His bookie, played by Terrence Howard, warns him that his money is due in two weeks since they cannot wait any longer, while his hooker with a heart of gold, Daka (Naomi Watts), cannot provide her services any longer without getting the pay she needs. His life isn’t going well. Then, a mother and son move in next door and everything starts to go well for Vincent. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) are recovering from a messy divorce and Maggie works long hours as a nurse, so Oliver ends up spending time with Vincent as he acts as an interim babysitter. He charges a respectable wage because, keep in mind, he cannot do charity work.
Vincent’s a fickle man that doesn’t take care of Oliver like a father would, or even like a crazy grandfather (probably a better descriptor). He feeds Oliver his last can of sardines while he feeds his cat high-quality pet food, and even takes Oliver out to bars while Vincent gets drunk and acts irresponsibly. Something happened in Vincent’s past that dictates how he lives today, which provides a dramatic underlining for the film’s structure. Theodore Melfi’s film never takes a particularly fruitful or inventive narrative path, mostly aiming for broad, slapstick comedy that delivers modest laughs if only due to Murray’s charm. I’ve seen Bill Murray play a lot of unique characters, ranging from an arrogant and egocentric weatherman (Groundhog Day) to a lonely, lost soul (Lost in Translation) to his wacky supporting turns over the past decade. This is Murray’s first lead role since 2005, but it doesn’t feel like he’s missed a beat. He’s dynamic and hits the dramatic notes well when the story requires its strange tonal shifts.
The supporting characters often define comedies like this, so it’s a shame that they become a mixed bag of eclectic personalities. Naomi Watts plays an unnecessarily Russian prostitute whose accent sounds awful and never convincing. She’s such a terrific actress that she shouldn’t have been delegated to such ethnically insensitive fodder. Melissa McCarthy, on the other hand, provides an unique dramatic turn as Maggie, allowing her character to remain strong when she’s clearly struggling, only to have a dramatic payoff when Oliver gets in trouble at school. There’s an outstanding confessional that holds too long and grows weary, but remains effective. Chris O’Dowd might be the best of the bunch, teaching at a Catholic school that accepts all religions and provides some of the strongest context laughs of the year. He’s on a fantastic run as of late with religious-themed roles, particularly after August’s astounding Calvary. But St. Vincent uses these supporting characters to sporadically affecting lengths, mostly focusing on Vincent as a flawed, kind-hearted man that Murray makes something wholly unique. The emotions are explained in an onstage speech at the end, a cliché of the genre, but Melfi’s film uses the magnetism of Murray to remain enjoyable and light.
Grade:★★★ (out of 5)