By Chaz Lipp
About a Boy meets Bad Grandpa. Only not as deeply felt as the former, nor as funny as the latter.
Ever since Wes Anderson cast Bill Murray in what turned out to be a justly celebrated supporting role in Rushmore, everyone seems to marvel about the veteran actor’s ability to “carry a movie.” As if that hadn’t really been established over the course of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The difference, I guess, was that ever since the notorious 1984 bomb The Razor’s Edge, no one seemed convinced that Murray could handle drama. Not only did Rushmore change that (though it was, for the most part, a dryly comedic role/movie), it paved the way for him to spin off a seemingly endless variation on what was essentially the same performance (Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic, Broken Flowers). No one much cared for his turn as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson, which offered something a tiny bit different, so he’s back on safer turf as grumpy old man Vincent MacKenna in Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent.
Vincent is a smoking, drinking, gambling malcontent who lives in a pigsty. His Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife (Donna Mitchell) is living in a memory care facility that Vincent can no longer afford. Though he habitually drives drunk, even taking out his own picket fence one night, he’s portrayed as such a lovable curmudgeon that we’re not meant to hold his most destructive behavior against him. Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door with her preteen son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie’s an overworked medical technician who cautiously employs Vincent as a babysitter to watch over Oliver when she has to work late. Their odd couple relationship feels genuine because both Murray and especially young Lieberher downplay the sentiments to such winning effect. They go out and raise a little mild hell together, with Vincent usually having Oliver home safe and sound by a decent time.
As the bond between Oliver and Vincent grows deepers, St. Vincent jerks tears quite effectively. But it’s hard not to feel a bit worked over after really thinking about how cunningly manipulative Melfi’s screenplay really is. Vincent has a relationship with one of the most nauseating stock characters in the book: the hooker with a heart of gold. Her name is Daska and she’s played (quite embarrassingly terribly) by Naomi Watts, whose overblown Russian accent helps create the impression that she’s wondered out of an SNL sketch. Not content with one cliché, we also have Terrence Howard as Vincent’s ruthless bookie Zucko, whose adversarial role is woefully underdeveloped. The deck is irrefutably stacked for us to fall in love with, and root for, some kind of redemption for Vincent (especially after a third act health crisis).
It’s nice to see the talented McCarthy stretching a bit in a generally non-comedic role, but her role is underwritten. The character leaves an impression mostly because McCarthy has a knack for memorable line readings, but really it’s a nothing part that’s ultimately beneath her at this point. The best element of St. Vincent involves the genuinely touching relationship between Vincent and the wife who no longer recognizes him. He’s learned that the only way he can communicate with her is to play-act as her doctor. When money gets tight, the facility administrator (Ann Dowd, another terrific actress who’s underused here) threatens to have her transferred out to a lesser institution. There’s an entire movie hiding in this subplot, and while it may likely have been a sadder one, it might’ve also been a more mature (and less derivative) one. Writer-director Melfi took the easy way out instead.
Images: Weinstein Company