Dir: Theodore Melfi
Bill Murray, venerated head grouch of Hollywood, finds himself in that rarefied league of the acting establishment in his later years. He can afford to recline on a hard-earned and justified reputation from a fine, often classic, back catalogue. Now he need only be distracted by those few choice scripts that perpetuate both that reputation and his trademark character: a grumpy, laconic, world-weary curmudgeon protecting a bruised heart of gold. St. Vincent certainly fits this Bill.
In the first feature length directorial outing from Theodore Melfi we meet Murray as Vincent. He’s the nightmare next door when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move to the neighbourhood. Their clumsy removal men destroy his obligatory picket fence in the process, forcing an initial front yard stand off. But Oliver soon ends up in Vin’s charge when school bullies steal his house keys, and his time-poor single mum reluctantly accepts a necessary childcare solution. So begins a classic ‘Odd Couple’ style relationship, between sweet young innocent and aged cantankerous gripe. The elder is at first despairing, but soon keen to initiate his unsullied charge in the ways of the world. To square up to a screen presence of the likes of Murray requires an actor of no small charisma and Lieberher measures up. As the stereotypes of bad behaviour are ticked off… gambling, fighting, drinking… we witness Oliver’s previously protected naivety skilfully chipped away with each dawning realisation of adulthood. Only the very hardest of hearts would fail to find some poignancy in the pairing at the story’s heart.
Beyond the rich contrast of the central duo is a solid, if familiar, ensemble cast. Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd appear in parallel again, as per previous comedies Bridesmaids (2011) and This Is 40 (2012). It’s as if, together, they signify the contemporary stamp of comedy validation. McCarthy continues to impress, in a role allowing her to expand beyond well-worn comic sensibilities. She portrays the struggle of a working mother embroiled in a bitter divorce suit, while O’Dowd offers benevolent solace as Oliver’s wisecracking religious teacher Brother Geraghty. It is only Naomi Watts’ Daka who feels incongruous. The character blurs the line between Vin’s paid escort and fully paid-up girlfriend. As a deliberately comedic turn, complete with caricatured Russian accent, it is pitched beyond the gentle comedy of the rest, and is conspicuous by result.
By the time we reach the finale, Vincent’s redemption is complete. A school-bound set piece makes no apology for overt sentimentality. Indeed the whole venture may be neatly contrived and emotionally manipulative, but when it is a pleasure to be manipulated in this way, one happily relents. In fact, the depiction of certain serious plot turns within the conventions of comic drama gives the film a fresh, original tone. But this is not without danger. The brisk pace of the genre occasionally skips along faster than developments warrant, and dictates a lightweight breeziness that can feel at odds with decidedly unfunny events. Maggie’s rueful legal battle with her estranged ex is smoothed over in the final act, for example. Ultimately, any odd couplings of mood are few, and greatly outweighed by an all-pervading air of appreciative gratitude. The lesson personified by the newly canonized Saint Vincent, and evangelized by Melfi’s sweet cinematic sermon, is one of giving thanks in the face of adversity. Whatever scars life has left you with, however much you have earned the reputation of world-weary grouch, always remember to cherish the blessings with which you have been administered.
★ ★ ★