I kept expecting the internet to go gaga for the St. Vincent trailers, featuring Bill Murray teaching a little kid to toughen up, or sitting in his lawn chair, wearing his giant old man glasses and not giving a f*ck, the way it goes nuts for stories about Murray crashing karaoke bars and Brooklyn house parties. Instead, I’ve been seeing a lot of “Aw, but it looks so contrived!”
Thing is, St. Vincent is contrived. It’s contrived in the best way. I’ll put it this way: Do you want to watch Bill Murray act like a sarcastic prick, but secretly have a heart of gold? Do you want him to have an unorthodox-yet-rewarding relationship with a precocious young boy like all the best parts of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Bad Santa, and Bad Words? Do you want these adversarial relationships eventually to lead to understanding? So yeah, St. Vincent is about as procedural a feel-good Sundance comedy as Law & Order SVU is a cop show, but when the dialog is sharp and the acting is perfect, that’s a pretty damned fine thing to watch. A big part of Bill Murray’s appeal has always been that glint in his eye, that winking sense that yeah, he’s pulling your leg a little bit, but only because you secretly want him to.
Bill Murray plays Vincent SomethingIrishOrPolish, a grouchy, get-off-my-lawnian retiree with an ass-grooved recliner and a taste for sleeveless shirts. He has a simple life philosophy, “You work, you get paid, you drink.” Recent divorcee Melissa McCarthy moves in next door with her adult-in-miniature son, Oliver, played by Jaeden Lieberher, whose parents should receive at least a fierce noogie for trying to come up with a unique spelling of “Jaden.” Wouldn’t you know it, Murray and the boy strike up an unorthodox friendship, and buppity buppa buh. None of this would probably work if Bill Murray, who’s basically a human Garfield in this, wasn’t so good at playing glib, and Lieberher (is it just me or does that name sound like a stutter?) wasn’t so effective as the articulate youth. Aw, he’s just like I saw myself, and he gets to be best friends with Bill Murray! Thus it allows you the wish-fulfillment of having been befriended by Bill Murray during your awkward years. A contrived hook? Sure, but also possibly the most brilliant one ever.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m small,” Lieberher’s character tells Murray’s, upon receiving some kind of toughen-up-kid speech.
“Yeah, well so was Hitler,” Murray deadpans.
If you don’t appreciate little gems of dialogue like that one, you probably won’t like St. Vincent, which is basically a 90-minute excuse for them. In addition to Murray as Grumpy Garfield and Jaeden Terribleparents as his pet boy, St. Vincent also stars Melissa McCarthy as the mom, who is so much more enjoyable when she’s playing it straight. She has such a talent for finding the beats within a scene, it’s frustrating that she’s so often tasked with jumping outside of it, doing the robot in a parking lot or farting on pies or whatever. This role draws on her true skill. Likewise perfectly cast is Oliver’s teacher at Catholic school, Chris O’Dowd, who was born to play a put-upon priest. As quirkily glibbity glib as it is, there’s just the right amount of social commentary to Oliver whispering “I think I’m Jewish,” after O’Dowd asks him to read the morning prayer.
Naomi Watts even does a decent job playing Murray’s pregnant Russian hooker girlfriend, a character that feels like it was a trying-too-hard disaster on paper. The only component that doesn’t work is Dario Barosso, as Oliver’s tormenter-cum-best-friend Ocynski. Okay, dial back the schmaltz a little, guys, they don’t all need to be pals. Similarly, I could do without yet another movie turning Alzheimer’s patients into lovable Mr. Magoos who try to eat with their forks backwards (Lithgow in Planet of the Apes) or are beautiful and perfectly articulate, just a little out of it (as it’s presented here). Having watched my grandmother gradually lose the ability to groom and feed herself I can understand if that reality seems a little dark for someone making a sweet dramedy, but to avoid even the basic reality of Alzheimer’s, the victim constantly being unable to find the words to express their feelings and getting sullen and frustrated about it, it just seems like such a rude copout.
So sure, St. Vincent is overly broad and feels a little like every Sundance comedy ever made, but it also works. It’s Bill Murray’s School of Rock moment, his chance to play the crotchety, rumpled sweetheart everyone thinks he is, alongside the preternaturally adult child we all think we were. It’s bullshit, sure, but it’s the best kind of bullshit. The kind of bullshit that makes us all secretly okay with being bullshitted.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.