“St. Vincent” Absolved of all its Sins
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I’m thinking there must have been dust or some such irritant in the movie theater where I saw director Theodore Melfi’s “St. Vincent,” about a curmudgeonly Vietnam vet who takes the lonesome, diminutive young boy next door under wing. Otherwise, how could a manly man like your humble film critic explain the intermittent, involuntary production of a liquid in his eyes that might otherwise be confused for tears of joy and/or empathy?
Yeah, it’s that kind of film, and a good one, too. While you know the drill, Bill Murray as the title-referenced Vincent McKenna imbues the old standard with his own unique and embracing twist. Peeling the layers off his cantankerous, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, native, the veteran actor issues a primer on tolerance while charmingly evincing why Oliver, the 11-year-old victim of a broken home played by Jaeden Lieberher, might become enamored with him. A cast of fine supporting players provides good balance and helps establish credibility for the offbeat tutorial.
Smart writing by Mr. Melfi, with just the right touch of quirkiness and a smattering of running gags, draws us into the scenario. Perennially with drink in hand, his little home decorated in neo dysfunctional disarray, Vincent listens and dances to music of the ‘60’s, often stumbling and collecting assorted bumps and bruises. But, in the nomenclature of the era he’s celebrating, he just keeps on trucking. Snippets of exposition that we hope will evolve into a much broader elucidation suggest that this is no common boozer.
Nope, something happened once, or maybe twice, and perhaps it pleases our sensibilities that little Oliver, recently relocated with his two-timed mother Maggie, portrayed by Melissa McCarthy, suspects there’s more to this fellow than meets the eye. But then Oliver, unlike his understandably nervous mom, who’s going through a divorce and an ugly custody battle, is a rather unflappable sort who’s learned to roll with the punches, literally and figuratively. He takes it in stride when on his first day at the new parochial school a bully beats and robs him.
By this time, Maggie, in desperate need of a babysitter to watch her young man after school while she works long hours at the hospital, makes what she sees as a deal with the Devil. Vincent could use the $11 an hour. And, though otherwise scornfully disinterested in these new émigrés, when he gets wind of the abuse Oliver suffers, it sticks in his craw. He teaches him self-defense. Of course the instruction expands to other life skills, including forays to the race track and dancing to the jukebox at the local gin mill. Don’t worry: no liquor for the kid.
Their getting-to-know-you adventures also entail a visit to a posh nursing home where Vincent curiously dons a doctor’s lab coat, and introduction to his Russian gal pal, Daka (Naomi Watts), who he explains is a lady of the night. After one profitable afternoon at Belmont Park, they scoot away in Vincent’s rattletrap convertible wearing matching bandanas and licking celebratory ice cream cones. In movie-speak, that means they have bonded. Indeed, like some of real life’s better parts, it’s a tad syrupy. But because it makes us happy, we forgive “St. Vincent” its sins.
However, as predictable as is that eventuality, so too is the coming catastasis, that part in drama when push comes to shove. You see, the bookies are after Vincent, Maggie’s lawyer-husband is pressing his advantage in family court, and Oliver’s sudden familiarity with the art of guerrilla warfare hasn’t gone unnoticed by the monsignor at St. Patrick’s School. Oh, and just to thicken the plot, it appears that Naomi Watts’s comically drawn Daka will, as the Victorians were wont to explain, be cancelling all her engagements.
Mr. Murray embodies the central ethos with nomination-worthy aplomb, cleverly causing us to wonder if his rumpled Bacchanalian is actually capable of spiritual reclamation. Melissa McCarthy at last sheds the unkempt whiner stereotype that, while catapulting her to notice, was starting to get old. Here, she is solid as the poster woman for single moms, replete with all the troubles big and small that define her challenging status. And young Master Lieberher spreads the precociousness just enough to support the winsome notion that the child is father to the man.
The appeal is simple. In reality, people seldom change their stripes. Run into a guy who was an obnoxious idiot thirty years ago and after five minutes you realize he’s still an obnoxious idiot. But in cinema, folks learn from their experiences. They offer hope for improvement, and when the film is real good, as is the case with “St. Vincent,” they even reveal a little miracle or two.
“St. Vincent,” rated PG-13, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Theodore Melfi and stars Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher. Running time: 102 minutes