Wednesday, February 25, 2015


St. Vincent Movie Review

Bill Murray Continues His Run As A National Treasure...

by Don Stradley

St. Vincent is a predictable workout for those who like to think the worst among us are actually kind-hearted, but that’s positive news, because this is a movie that might actually get to you. Even though I could have won money by predicting plot twists, the story still moved me, and left me with a tear in my eye.

The movie wants to be a working class fable, so it takes place in Sheepshead Bay, which is apparently a neighborhood of seedy bars and horse races. It stars Bill Murray as Vincent, a grouchy slob who appears to be one of life’s losers. He’s often drunk, and gambles away his money at the track. Loan sharks are after him. Vincent is one of those guys who is always trying to talk his way out of a beating. His girlfriend is a Russian stripper (or hooker) who has notified him that she’s pregnant, though no one is really sure that Vincent is the father. One morning he wakes up to find he has new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a recently separated woman who is scuffling to support herself as an emergency room nurse, and her delicate son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), a polite boy who speaks with the sweetness of a character in an old Peanuts cartoon. The new neighbors immediately get on Vincent's bad side when the moving van destroys Vincent’s fence. True, this is a bit of ham-handed film school symbolism about Vincent's protective outer wall being destroyed, but stick with it. There are gems to be found here.

Oliver is a frail little boy, and on his first day of school his keys and wallet are stolen. He ends up at Vincent’s. The old guy doesn’t mind watching the kid. They watch Abbott and Costello movies and eat sardines. Always in need of money, Vincent offers his services to Maggie as a babysitter. Oliver, fresh out of father figures, thinks the old guy is kind of cool in a weird way. Faster than you can say Uncle Buck, Vincent is teaching the boy how to deal with bullies, and how to bet on the horses. It’s the familiar old story: boy meets bum, boy loses bum, boy is reunited with bum in the end.

Granted, it’s a story we’ve seen before. It’s basically a John Hughes movie with sweaty armpits.

It's actually rather daring for writer/director Theodore Melfi to create such an old-timey, sentimental story. He’s gambling that such a tale will still hit people. To give his movie a darker edge, he pads the screenplay with some dark, real life elements: people have strokes; they grow senile; they can’t get good medical care; and money is scarce. And Vincent isn't particularly cuddly, either. He drinks too much, and he's ugly when he's drunk. But Melfi also inserts some cushions, such as a hooker with a heart of gold, bullies who turn out to be nice guys, and kids who see through the crusty armor of an old grumbler like Vincent.

What hooked me into the story was Murray. He’s become such a good actor that I simply caved in, even if I knew where Melfi was going. There’s pain in Murray’s eyes, and when he wails “Why!” after losing at the track, his anguish is stirring. I think he may have said, “Why not me?” but I can’t be sure. He may have said it with his eyes, or through mental telepathy. However he did it, he made me feel his agony. His friendship with the kid isn’t syrupy, and that’s to Murray’s credit. He could’ve played it for pure mawkishness, but for most of the movie we sense that he’s only in it for the babysitting money.

Murray has often played a character who is looking after a younger person. It goes all the way back to Meatballs, when he was the gregarious camp counselor. In Stripes, he was a confidant older brother to the goofs in his platoon. In Ghostbusters, well, he was protecting us kids from ghosts, wasn’t he? Even in Lost in Translation, he was providing guidance for a young woman. In Broken Flowers he was searching for his son. In Moonrise Kingdom his daughter runs away. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Murray has to deal with someone who may or may not be his son. In Rushmore, he befriends a young nerd. In What About Bob?, his relationship with a young boy is a big part of the story. I won’t try to psychoanalyze him, but this theme is noticeable throughout Murray's career. St. Vincent certainly continues the thread. Perhaps he’s been so popular, especially among male viewers, because Murray appeals to us as an older brother, or perhaps a dad figure.

He’s also become one of most watchable actors in the business. There’s a scene at the end of St. Vincent where he merely sits in a lawn chair mumbling the words to Bob Dylan’s ‘Shelter From The Storm’. He fiddles with a garden hose. He relaxes. He sprays water on his shoes. He’s magnetic.

So, sure, if you're a hard-bitten highbrow and you're into somber films, this isn't your movie. Hey, I don’t know if I would’ve liked it if someone besides Murray was playing Vincent. Jack Nicholsen might have pulled it off back in his About Schmidt phase, but not many other actors could do it. If occasionally you like to let your guard down and enjoy a slushy one, then St. Vincent could work for you. It's not great, but it has a heart. And it has Bill Murray.


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