I joked, to friends after seeing the screener for St. Vincent, that someone at the theater must have bumped a tray full of dust into the ventilation system just before the end of the film. Theodore Melfi has made a character study for Bill Murray that so obviously and nakedly goes for the heartstrings that the only possible explanation for my reaction would be something in my eye. Jokes aside, there’s something wonderful about a movie that tell you exactly what it wants you to feel, how it’s going to get you to do that, and then actually manages to pull it off.
Murray plays Vincent McKenna, a boorish drunk and longtime Brooklyn resident. He’s also a problem gambler who owes money to his bookie (Terrence Howard). The closest thing he has to a friend is an Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts).
Vincent gets his first chance to show us just what a miserable bastard he is when Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door and he blames her movers for the damage to the fence that he himself ran over while drunk the previous night. She’s left an unsupportive jerk of a husband who’s angling for full custody, and her kid, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), is a pathetically adorable moppet who gets home from an expensive Catholic school most days before she can get off of her job as a radiology technician at a local hospital. And Vincent flops into the ill-fitting role of Oliver’s babysitter — at extortionate rates, of course.
Of course, Vincent must have a heart of gold under that crusty, ill-maintained exterior. And so of course, when Oliver’s overbearing religion teacher (Chris O’Dowd) assigns a report on saints in our midst that will be delivered in front of the entire school community, Vincent is Oliver’s first choice.
The whole thing is such a transparent manipulation that I’m honestly surprised it works so well. That’s not to say there aren’t surprises in store; Melfi’s script does manage to change up on plenty of expected turns. But even if we take a slightly different route, the destination is clear from the start, and it should by all rights be a cloying, sappy one.
The obvious place to look for an explanation is the star: Murray has been on a winning streak of late, and Vincent is much more his speed than the Franklin Roosevelt we saw in Hyde Park on Hudson. On the other hand, the role is so perfectly crafted to the intersection of Murray’s best comedic and dramatic turns, so it’s no surprise that he can grab hold of it with both hands like this, and that’s often a recipe for overdoing it.
I think more than a little credit has to go to McCarthy. This is exactly the sort of range I knew she was capable of when I found Tammy so disappointingly lacking in it. She’s a totally different actress here than she is in the raunchier comedies on her résumé, and a far more effective one.
But maybe some of it goes back to Melfi’s story itself, and maybe his direction too. For all the obvious parts of the ending, it doesn’t go quite as far as it might; like Murray’s and McCarthy’s performances, the story itself shows a measure of restraint.
It’s nice for stories to resolve happily, but some of them are less about happy endings and more about endings we can learn to live with and move on from. Vincent’s saintliness isn’t about working miracles. It’s about helping when he can, getting by when he can’t, and maybe — eventually — learning to tell the difference.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.