By Preston Wilder
Say hello to the year’s finest double act – a mean-spirited, self-destructive 64-year-old man and a small, very polite 11-year-old boy. Both are loners. Both work with silence. You could build a whole film around Bill Murray’s long pauses when the kid asks stuff like “What’s a trifecta?” – he sits there and stares at the boy, as if to say ‘Are you for real?’, and the longer he stares the funnier it gets – but newcomer Jaeden Lieberher is no slouch himself, putting a subtle spin even on throwaway lines like “Is she with us?” (apropos of a nanny who appears to be following the boy and his mother). He has a kind of deadpan self-composure. He’s a bit like George ‘Foghorn’ Winslow, the solemn little lad who contemplated Marilyn Monroe without cracking a smile in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
St. Vincent, it must be said, is entirely predictable – though the term seems irrelevant to a film with so little plot to begin with. Jaeden is Oliver, who moves to a new neighbourhood with his newly-separated mum Maggie (Melissa McCarthy); Bill is Vincent, their new next-door neighbour. Maggie works long hours as a CAT-scan technician; Vincent, badly in need of cash, offers to look after Oliver for $12 an hour. Man and boy bond – and that, pretty much, is that, except for an unexpected twist towards the end that allows Murray to do some serious acting of the kind that often wins Oscars (I can say no more).
The trajectory is predictable, yet the film is surprising in small ways. For a start, everyone in the story is surprisingly middle-class, despite seemingly living hand-to-mouth. Maggie clearly has some funds, and Oliver goes to an expensive private school – a Catholic school that’s hip as well as devout, with Chris O’Dowd as the amiable Brother running a class of pint-sized doubters and a few agnostics (‘I don’t know’ seems to be “the fastest-growing religion in the world,” he notes dryly). Vincent’s wife, who has Alzheimer’s, is being cared-for at a high-end clinic – and it’s true he can no longer afford it, but he could before. This, in short, is a comedy of downwardly-mobile people, desperately trying to cling to life as they know it.
Maybe that explains why the film feels compassionate. St. Vincent has a generous spirit; there are no villains here. A boy who starts out bullying Oliver at school later becomes his best friend. Maggie never belittles Vincent, even when she has every right to (I guess she feels like they’re both in the same boat). Naomi Watts is Daka, a Slavic “lady of the night” Vincent hooks up with every Tuesday – and Daka’s annoyed because she’s pregnant, the “bump” costing her most of her clients, but then she gives birth and we see her in the hospital, tearfully hugging the newborn: “I like this baby!”. The film is essentially sunny. Even the Catholic priest, as already mentioned, is a total mensch.
The trouble, of course, is that ‘sunny’ can easily slide into ‘soppy’ – but that’s where Murray comes in, indeed St. Vincent might’ve been unbearable with any other actor. It’s not just the mordant misanthropy, the way he insults a nurse or tells an annoying bank clerk she’s “just a spoke on a wheel”. It’s not just the fierce individualism, like refusing to wear a seat belt because “my life is my problem”. It’s also that, beneath the rumpled look and sardonic sense of humour, Murray is the rare movie star who convinces as a genuinely mean person (his own real-life grumpiness is legendary). When he pushes the kid away in the final act – “I guess this is goodbye,” he says with nary a flicker of warmth in his eyes – you can sense how he ended up so alone and embittered, having pushed away all the love in his life.
There are cheap shots: an over-active soundtrack, Vincent and Oliver in matching bandannas or racing down a hospital corridor in wheelchairs – and of course the climax, which is so soppy it almost goes beyond soppy (it’s so disproportionate it might be a fantasy). But St. Vincent works better than it should, hitting some odd notes within its predictable framework, playing Vincent as an old-school reprobate who might be living in the 70s: he spends his days at the racetrack and the local bar, then comes home to Abbott and Costello movies. “Are they old?” asks Oliver politely, not having heard of Abbott and Costello. “They’re dead. That’s the oldest you can be,” says Vincent flatly. “Or the youngest. Time freezes when you’re dead,” replies the kid with his usual deadpan expression – and Vincent stares at this little philosopher, as if starting to discern a fellow weirdo. They’re a great double act, seriously.
DIRECTED BY Theodore Melfi
STARRING Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy
US 2014 102 mins.