The story goes that St. Vincent star Bill Murray doesn’t have an agent like most actors. Instead he has a free-phone number that dials into an answer phone machine that you can leave a pitch for your film for him to then decide if it is worthy of his time. Writer director Theodore Melfi must have been quietly confident when proposing his St. Vincent to Murray knowing that if anyone could play a curmudgeonly old man with a well hidden heart of gold it was the man who has whispered sweet nothings into Scarlett Johansson’s ear and also driven a pick-up truck with a groundhog.
Vincent (Murray) is a heavy drinking, smoke-puffing, whoring, bitter and twisted old man living in a dilapidated house and up to his eyes in debt to both the bank and lone sharks. When his new neighbour Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) finds herself in desperate need of a babysitter for her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) Vincent volunteers his services, for a price. Before long the pair have struck up a rapport and Oliver begins to understand that Vincent is rarely what he seems on the surface.
If ever there was a part tailor-made for Murray it was St. Vincent. From the moment we meet him he puts a smile on your face, albeit one with slightly judging corners as he embarks on a sexual encounter with a pregnant Russian hooker in the form of Naomi Watts. Because beneath his bad behaviour we are slowly invited, through the innocent eyes of Oliver, to understand Vincent’s hostility towards the world. Yes, he’s an outsider, yes he’s rude, yes he’s likely to laugh at you while you’re on fire but he’s really not a bad guy, in fact the genius of the film is that it slowly unwraps Vincent in such a way as to reveal he is indeed a potential saint; a tortured outsider who has discovered the best way to deal with pain is to laugh at others.
Melfi’s script, which made the Blacklist of best-unproduced scripts in Hollywood in 2011, finds humour in all the right places while also telling a heartfelt and emotional story. Vincent fast becomes Oliver’s life-mentor, a man who has seen and done it all and has the chance to show Oliver how not to do it. But while he’s imparting his cynical view on life through Vincent, Melfi is in fact quietly showing us that we all need a friend, someone to be there for us when things are at their darkest and even those who have pushed people away have the ability to be compassionate. It’s a religious parable, something smartly mocked within in the script by Chris O’Dowd’s wonderfully enlightened Brother Geraghty, that has the ability to lift your heart to levels a film of this ilk has any right to even aim for let alone achieve.
McCarthy, normally the one playing the foul-mouthed role in most of her films, brings a warm and always on-edge quality to Maggie. It’s the kind of performance that combines her natural wit with an affection we rarely see from her and as a result she’s utterly captivating. Watts’ Russian mannerisms border on the stereotypical but are all the more funny as a result, her blunt delivery sometimes even too much for Vincent to fully grasp. As debut performances go Lieberher is magnificent; his wise beyond his years logic combined with his deer in the headlights demeanor are in no small part the reason the film works and why he bounces off Murray so perfectly. Because when Lieberher and Murray get going there is a natural chemistry there, a thoughtful, funny back-and-forth that has you grinning, laughing and crying at all the right moments. Murray’s performance is award worthy, it’s brash, arrogant and often so sad sack you wonder if it’s even possible to make Vincent smile but in Murray’s hands it’s also impossible not to love. Imagine Pixar’s Up’s Carl brought to R-rated kicking and screaming life and you’re somewhere close to Murray’s portrayal as Vincent. As the credits role we watch Vincent sitting in his garden singing along, badly, to Bob Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm and you cannot help but sit there wishing it wasn’t the end of the film so desperate are you to remain in Vincent’s company that little bit longer.
One of last year’s most horribly under-seen films St. Vincent is a warm, funny and endlessly endearing story of a loner learning to make friends and having the audience falling rapidly in love with him.