Ten minutes into Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent you’ve already figured out how it is going to end. Once the cute kid meets the crusty old coot next door who hates children – and humanity at large – the movie becomes a long slow drive down Highway Inevitable. When you reach the destination, there’s nothing to see but a lot of sap. Not only that, but it comes to a finale so stupid and unconvincing that you feel like throwing your shoes at the screen.
That’s too bad because buried under all the predictable muck is a reasonably good performance by Bill Murray who plays Vincent McKenna, a 68 year-old Vietnam War vet who has given up on life and is happy to wallow in his vices. He’s an alcoholic with a gambling problem, he owes money to the wrong people, and he has a pathological disdain for just about everyone. His mouth is a weapon from which he dispenses a comment or a put down for everyone about everything. Oh, and he has a Russian stripper girlfriend (Naomi Watts) who is about to give birth to his child.
This may not sound like a character you’d want to spend any time with, and if he were played by another actor you’d be right on the money. But Murray knows how to make a repellent character interesting. What is uninteresting is the adventure that Vincent gets caught up in. One day he finds that he has new neighbors; Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) is a divorced mother with a cute son named Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). She works long shifts as a CAT scan technician and has no one to look after her son when he gets home from school. So, she gets babysitting services from the crank next door with the drinking problem, the gambling problems, and the Russian stripper girlfriend. Who wouldn’t?
You can see it all coming from a mile away: The kid warms the old man’s heart, while the old man teaches the kid how to fight off bullies, and also how to gamble and cheat his way through life. The mother doesn’t approve. Vincent’s behavior puts Maggie’s custody of Oliver in jeopardy, and the stripper girlfriend inevitably gives birth. These are not spoilers – you’ll know where this movie is headed before your popcorn gets cold.
The elements of the screenplay are so tightly packed that the movie comes equipped with less of a screenplay and more of a checklist. The characters move by manipulation, not motivation. It might have been nice if things were left a little looser, so that the characters flowed with more freedom and life. That might have made for a less predictable movie, and it would spare us an embarrassing climax in which Oliver is asked to stand in front of the whole school and give his personal nomination for sainthood, giving a speech that no ten year-old anywhere in the known world would have ever written.
What’s interesting about St. Vincent is that beyond all the sappy manipulation, you can see the bare bones of a really great movie. It might have helped to simply ditch all of the supporting characters and just focus on Vincent. He’s interesting enough that we’ll follow him for two hours, especially since he’s played by Bill Murray. Ever since Lost in Translation more than a decade ago, Murray has been playing characters that are beyond the standard Bill Murray Character. Whether he’s playing FDR or occupying a space in the latest Wes Anderson confection, you can feel his desire to try something new. It’s admirable that at his age, he’s eager for new things (which is probably why he’s been resisting Ghostbusters III). He can leaven crummy material with a good performance, and St. Vincent is a great example of that.