2014, PG-13, 103 min. Directed by Theodore Melfi. Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Ann Dowd, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 17, 2014
Although playing the unabashed curmudgeon next door is the kind of thing Bill Murray could do in his sleep, this treasured actor instead brings everything he has to the role of Vincent MacKenna. In fact, all the actors in St. Vincent are at their best here, and manage to keep this crowd-pleasing comedy buoyant, even while it sails through some sappy waters. The sap perhaps compensates for St. Vincent’s darker edges, which frame the film to an extent uncommon for a comedy.
Vincent is a character who’s not too unlike how we imagine the real Bill Murray to be. Boozing, smoking, gambling, indecorously dressed, always conniving for some extra bucks, and gliding eccentrically through life, Vincent is nevertheless well-liked by almost everyone except his bartender and bookie. Yet Murray drills down into the role and finds the soul at the heart of the caricature. The story kicks into gear when new neighbors – Maggie (McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Lieberher) – move into the house next door to Vincent in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Oliver is a puny kid who is bullied by the kids at his new school – a parochial school at which the saints are still studied under the jocular yet firm guidance of his teacher (O’Dowd). A newly single mom, Maggie works late hours, and the grouch next door quickly becomes Oliver’s after-school babysitter (for pay, of course). Among other things, Vincent teaches Oliver some self-defense moves, takes him to the track and his bar, and lets him hang out with Daka (Watts), Vincent’s pregnant, pole-dancing, thickly Russian-accented girlfriend and lady of the evening.
Newcomer Lieberher is a great foil for Murray, usually calling Vincent “sir” and never devolving into cute childlike maneuvers. McCarthy, for a change, gets to play a straightforward character instead of clown, and the shift pays off beautifully. Watts, who hasn’t always scored well with comedy, is quite funny as the over-the-top Daka. First-time feature writer and director Theodore Melfi appears to have a nice way with actors, and should be able to continue on this path as long as he regulates his cynicism-to-schmaltz levels. If you scratch the surface too deeply, a few things might not ring true, but there’s no greater pleasure to be had than the film’s opening and closing sequences during which Murray, alone on the screen, dances, then sings along to the music coming through his headphones.