Mark Reviews Movies

St. Vincent


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Theodore Melfi

Cast: Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd, Terrence Howard, Dario Barosso, Kimberly Quinn, Ann Dowd, Donna Mitchell

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 10/17/14 (limited); 10/24/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 17, 2014

The grouchy old man does not change. He is an old man, and for good and for ill, old men are set in their ways. Call it stubbornness, or call it consistency. The old man is what he is, and by the way, the old man of St. Vincent hates phrases like that one because he is an old man who knows what he likes and knows what he hates. He'll tell everyone examples of latter. The only kind of change is in how people perceive him. If he lets someone know about the stuff he likes, that person is on the right track to seeing a different side of the man butóand this is importantónot a different man.

That is what's most refreshing about writer/director Theodore Melfi's film. It gives us a character who is completely unlikeable on the surface, and without changing a thing about who the character is, the film dares us not to like him by the end. Melfi doesn't water down his central character. He is as crotchety at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, He still drinks. He still smokes, although he has to sneak his cigarettes. He might gamble a little less, but he definitely doesn't abide the things he dislikes any more than he had. He's a man of habit, bad temper, and a habit of having a bad temper.

Vincent, the grouchy old man, is also played by Bill Murray, which instantly works in the character's favor. Murray is one of the rare, one-of-a-kind presences in film today. It's not that his presence elevates the material with which he's working. It's that he immediately makes his presence known.

The moment Murray's Vincent appears on screen, wearing an outfit that he likely wore to bed the previous night and the night before that, we know this character. He's tired of the world, and he sure as hell doesn't play by its rules. A bit later, he is, quite literally, dancing to his own rhythm while in a drunken stupor that probably has lasted for years. Vincent gets away with itóand a lot of other questionable behavioróbecause Murray is having fun in the performance of his creation.

The story centers on Vincent's involvement in the lives of his new neighbors, a single mother named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). He meets them after a bad night, which ends with him hitting his finger with the hammer he's using to break ice and then slipping on some of the ice, and the first event of a morning that's going to continue his cycle of bad days. The movers Maggie has hired break a tree branch with their truck, and it crashes on his car. Vincent also blames the movers for knocking down his fence, although he did that himself upon returning home from the bar.

After Oliver is bullied at his new school by a group of kids who steal his clothes and the keys to the house, he asks his new neighbor if he could use the phone. This leads to Vincent becoming Oliver's babysitter while Maggie works long hours to make ends meet.

Vincent teaches the kid some important life lessons: how to bet on the ponies, how his stripper/prostitute friend Daka (Naomi Watts) works in one of the rarely "honest" professions, how to get a bartender's attention, and how to break an opponent's nose in a fight. The last one comes in handy when the bullies continue to torment him, and the resulting meeting with the Catholic school's principal and Oliver's teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd) gives Maggie a chance to unload all of her troubles. Oliver's father is fighting for custody.

Melfi's screenplay overloads on potential conflict. There's the custody fight, and there's also the fact that Daka is pregnant. After the loan on his reverse mortgage has run dry, Vincent owes money to the nursing home caring for his wife (Donna Mitchell), who has Alzheimer's, and they've given him a week to pay off the debt. This revelation comes after we learn that Vincent has two weeks to pay back a bookie named Zucko (Terrence Howard), who has decided to stop playing nice with the down-on-his-luck old man. The doubling-up of debt subplots is strange, and it's even stranger when Zucko simply disappears without getting a cent from Vincent.

It's all a bit much, and the film becomes too precious for its own good with the discussion of saints in Oliver's school, which leads to a presentation on a modern-day, unexpected saint living unsung in the students' lives (one guess as to whom Oliver chooses). It's a way to provide a tidy summation of a character whose life Melfi already neatly summarizes without making a big deal out of it.

That's key here. Melfi and Murray have created a character whose past doesn't need probing into to see his complexity. If one ignores what Oliver learns in his research of Vincent (It's too much about what he had done instead of who he is), the character is still someone who earns our approval, even if it's somewhat grudgingly so. We can see the decency in a man who risks financial ruin because of his love for his wife. We can spot the cracks in the cranky shell of a man who doesn't benefit too much from taking care of a kid every day of the week. We understand the character because Melfi trusts him and Murray refines him. It's more than enough, even when St. Vincent becomes a little uncertain of its anti-hero's inherent, grumpy charms.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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