A marshmallow hiding inside a chestnut shell, St. Vincent is amusing enough as long as Bill Murray sticks to his mean and ornery act but ultimately reveals its true self as a film equivalent of the gooey 1971 Ray Stevens song “Everything Is Beautiful.”
As an Archie Bunker gone completely to seed, Murray puts on quite a show, while debuting writer-director Theodore Melfi has surrounded the star with a solid supporting cast and clearly shows that he knows how to manipulate an audience by putting a Charles Bukowski character into a fairy tale, which might well prove to be a winning commercial combination for The Weinstein Company this autumn.
Making a U-turn from the rarified realm of his last starring vehicle, Hyde Park on Hudson, in which he played FDR, Murray returns to his more familiar misanthropic ways as Vincent, an old coot you’d never want as a neighbor. Merely cantankerous when he’s not being actively anti-social, he’s let his house go to seed, is overdrawn at the bank and sure loves the sauce. He does, however, pay for the occasional services of pregnant Russian hooker Daka (Naomi Watts), whom he considers a friend in the absence of anyone else.
When newly separated mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) rents the house next door, the first thing her movers do is knock one of his tree branches down on his car, an old Chrysler convertible with the phony wood paneling. Thus starts a beautiful friendship, not between Vincent and Maggie but between him her son Oliver (Jaeden Liebeher), a spindly kid who gets bullied the moment he arrives at St. Patrick’s School in Brooklyn.
With newly minted single mom Maggie working interminable hours, it falls to Vincent to “babysit” Oliver, at the rate of $12 per hour. What the boy gets out of this, of course, is a “real” education as opposed to book learning, one that not only involves learning about prostitutes and booze but learning to bet at the race track and to defend himself against one particular brat at school. In other words, real stuff, not the useless junk you learn in class.
Melfi comes up with any number of good and effective scenes and there’s plenty to enjoy in the performances, first and foremost from Murray, who long since has been a master of deadpan belligerence, the perfectly timed beat to register disdain and disapproval, and surprising physical grace on the part of an unkempt and thoroughly unhealthy looking fellow; a solo dance Murray does when no one’s around to watch may seem a bit out of character but it’s a lovely thing to watch.
Vincent may feign disinterest in the tyke, who before long is spending more time with the old guy than with any other adult, but his affection is ill-concealed. Especially revealing is his compassionate behavior toward a mystery woman named Sandy (Donna Mitchell) at a retirement and elder care facility. And something resembling real excitement is registered when a long-shot bet he and Oliver make at Belmont proves a winner.
Even though Vincent can be relied upon to make some very bad and/or irresponsible decisions, the writing on the wall about Vincent’s eventual redemption is clearly readable from a very early stage. The engaging and enthusiastic priest (Chris O’Dowd) who teaches Oliver has every student to find and report upon a real person they think might have the spiritual stuff it takes to qualify as a saint; “Saints Among Us,” the assignment is called. The rest of the movie is as sentimental as anything with Bing Crosby in a priest’s collar, and not nearly as good.
Even though the film willfully ignores plenty of real-life issues as it rushes toward its denouement, beginning with some basic economic ones, Melfi has laid on the heart of gold stuff so sincerely that mainstream audiences might just eat it up. There’s good in every soul, the film endeavors to say; it’s just a question of finding it.
Murray’s the star here, no question, but everyone pitches in, beginning with newcomer Liebeher, who’s very appealing without being cloying as the skinny kid. Watts has a nice change of pace trying on a Russian accent, O’Dowd creates a teacher who loves his job and McCarthy nicely dials down her aggression and sense of being affronted to come up with a real characterization of a woman struggling with single motherhood.
At the public Q&A after the Toronto world premiere, Melfi was asked why he cast Murray in the leading role, upon which the actor got a big laugh by interjecting, “Because he couldn’t get Jack Nicholson.” Nicholson could have worked his own magic with this role, no question, but true story or not, his loss was Murray’s gain, as well as a treat for the audience.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Opens: October 24 (The Weinstein Company)
Production: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenwriter: Theodore Melfi
Producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Theodore Melfi, Fred Roos
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Don Cheadle, G. Mac Brown
Director of photography: John Lindley
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone
Editors: Peter Teschner, Sarah Flack
Music: Theodore Shapiro