I come away from a film like St. Vincent with mixed emotions. Actually, that’s a lie. It’s not a film “like” St. Vincent; it is St. Vincent. Why do I start you with such a confusing opening statement? I don’t know. Perhaps I wanted to address the whole “like X” statement when one is talking directly about X. Maybe I couldn’t think of a better way to open. Or, it might be possible that I think this type of opening is amusing — if not to you, than to me, and I matter more than you, after all.
The titular Vincent is played by Bill Murray, and he’s every bit the narcissistic grump that you hope he’ll be. He doesn’t care about anyone but his cat and perhaps his prostitute, Daka (Naomi Watts), whom he has visit him once a week. Vincent is in heavy debt, drinks heavily, and is probably a few pounds too heavy, as well. He smokes, gambles, and doesn’t understand how to back a car properly into a driveway. One day, the movers of his new neighbors knock a tree branch onto his car. Not the best way to get acquainted, but there you go. He meets Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), and tells them they owe him for the damages. Thus begins a wonderful relationship.
The very next day, Oliver has his keys and clothes stolen by the school bully, and therefore can’t get into his house after school. He spends three hours with Vincent, for which Vincent charges Maggie. Vincent proposes that he becomes the kid’s after-school babysitter. Oliver likes him, for some reason, and he’s just next door. Maggie agrees, and much of the middle portion of our film revolves around the adventures of Vincent and Oliver.
It’s a shame that the fun can’t last. It might’ve been a more enjoyable movie to just focus on the antics of these two unlikely pals. But we have to fall into manipulative and melodramatic territory after we’ve had our fun, which completely sucks the life out of our movie. Yeah, it’s kind of sweet, but since most of the movie is comedic, the change in direction comes across as abrupt and feels wrong. It was sweet enough earlier on.
That’s also ignoring how many of the jokes in the film’s first half are aimed at celebrating Vincent teaching Oliver a whole lot of things that he really shouldn’t be. One such scene involves Vincent instructing Oliver to use his palm to jam a bully’s nose from below. It’ll just break it, he says, and after Oliver does this, they celebrate. Oliver’s enthusiasm is supposed to be funny. That’s … not really a funny thing, though, is it? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just soft.
There’s also an unnecessary gangster subplot, which gets three brief scenes and involves a Terrence Howard character showing up and threatening Vincent. It gets no resolution and wasn’t necessary; if it didn’t include a pivotal moment — which doesn’t directly involve the gangsters — it wouldn’t have made it into the film. But, hey, Terrence Howard needs a paycheck, and we don’t see him in enough movies, so I guess what I’m saying is I’m almost okay with it being included, even if it did need at least one more scene to really be concluded.
Bill Murray is as good as you’d expect Bill Murray to be in a movie. He doesn’t show a lot of depth, but he has great comedic timing and can be a really grumpy and mean old man with seemingly relative ease. Melissa McCarthy has career-best work as the “straight man” of the situation. Isn’t it odd how she is better in that position than as the centerpiece? Naomi Watts puts on a Russian accent and does little in a thankless role; that applies to Chris O’Dowd, too, who plays a teacher at the school Oliver attends, teaching the children about what saints are. By the way, Jaeden Lieberher needs to learn how to enunciate much better, but his comedy scenes worked well — although it’s hard to tell if that was thanks to Murray and McCarthy, or if he has genuine comedic talent.
Is St. Vincent worth your time? Do you like Bill Murray? If the answer is yes, then watching him joke his way through half a movie and then take a backseat for the second half will probably be worth your time. The movie’s abrupt tonal shift leaves us with few laughs in its second half, but it does have a lot of them earlier on — as long as you’re okay with laughing at a grown man teaching a child inappropriate behavior. I’m less outraged about that than I sound. It’s funny enough.