St. Vincent

January 10, 2015
Bill Murray in 'St. Vincent' (2014)
Bill Murray in 'St. Vincent' (2014)

Sentimentality looms dangerously over Theodore Melfi’s comedy-drama, St. Vincent, which tells the tale of an aging misanthrope who becomes baby-sitter for a precocious little boy. I can hear the alarm bells ringing already. “It’s not that snotty little creep from Love Actually, is it?” Fortunately, no. The boy, Oliver, is played by 11-year-old Jaeden Lieberher, in his first feature film.

Better still, the aging misanthrope, Vincent, is Bill Murray, who takes to such roles with an alacrity that suggests he is barely acting.

Remove Murray from the equation and St. Vincent would be a very different proposition. His deadpan facial expressions are enough to prevent any story from becoming too cute or heart-warming. Lieberher walks a finer line, but remains a child, not an actor giving us an impression of a child. In other words, he manages to come across in a disarmingly natural way. This is more than I could say about Russell Crowe and Dylan Georgiades in The Water Diviner, who are respectively the very embodiments of masculine integrity and youthful cheekiness.

The two female leads in St. Vincent are cast against type, with Melissa McCarthy playing Oliver’s mum, Maggie, who has separated from her unfaithful husband and returned to the workforce as a radiologist. Naomi Watts is Daka, a Russian stripper who sleeps with Vincent for a cash remuneration.

Viewers will be more accustomed to seeing McCarthy in some abrasive Hollywood farce and Watts in a dramatic role. In St. Vincent McCarthy is the least comical of characters, while Watts is a cartoon, with an exaggerated Russian accent and a taste in clothes that would make any hooker blush.

The film begins with Vincent getting tanked at his local bar, then demolishing his own fence as he attempts to park in his driveway. Early the next morning a delivery van brings Maggie and Oliver’s furniture to the house next door, breaking a branch off a tree that lands on Vincent’s car. This is his opportunity to demand compensation for every bit of damage he has inflicted on his own property.

Vincent and the neighbours make their peace when Oliver has his phone, keys and wallet stolen at his new school, and has to ring his mum at work. He uses Vincent’s phone and samples his grudging hospitality. When Maggie arrives a deal is struck – for hard cash Vincent will collect Oliver after school and look after him till she gets back from work.

As part of his duty of care, Vincent coaches Oliver in the manly art of self-defence. He also introduces him to junk food; and to the race track, where he is a compulsive, unsuccessful punter.

It may sound as if Vincent has no redeeming features, but we soon learn that most of his money is spent on a private hospital where his wife, Sandy (Donna Mitchell), is struggling with dementia. He is also fiercely loyal to Daka, who is pregnant with his child, or with someone’s child. When his own health collapses, Vincent barely has the strength to be a bastard any longer.

Able to defend himself, thanks to Vincent’s assistance, Oliver turns the school bully into a friend. Although he thinks he is probably Jewish, Oliver’s school is staunchly Catholic, and the term assignment set by the voluble Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), is to write about a saint found in everyday life. Guess who?

The stock device of the school presentation in which Oliver sings Vincent’s praises to an audience of parents and friends is the predictable grand finale, and it is a hard scene to pull off. Vincent is more attractive when he is an amoral slob with a taste for drinking, smoking, gambling and fornication. He is ill-suited for a role in which he suddenly sees the error of his ways, buoyed up by the love of those around him.

Happily we are never made to witness the transfiguration of St. Vincent, although the mere implication allows Melfi to transform a slightly scabrous comedy into a family-friendly affair. Despite the Hollywood ending we may still cling stubbornly to the idea of this movie as a study in the degeneration of personality rather than its redemption.

St. Vincent
Written & directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Dario Barosso, Terrence Howard
USA, rated M, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 10th January, 2015.