Despite cultivating an identity as one of cinema’s most loveable malcontents, Bill Murray’s achievements remain unrecognised by the Academy. However, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent (2014), Murray finds himself in the running for the industry’s equivalent of canonisation; that holiest of holies – a Best Actor Oscar campaign. His role is that of the film’s eponymous Vincent, a boozy, misanthrope that can be found in any of the bars, bookies or brothels of Melfi’s broken America. He’s joined by fellow comedians Melisa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd in this surprisingly upbeat depiction of our recession hit contemporary world.
Facing financial ruination due to a string of outstanding debts Vincent manages to profit from the arrival of his new neighbours, Maggie (McCarthy) and her scrawny son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie is a single mum, working unpredictable shifts at the local hospital and in need of a child-minder. Out of desperation she turns to Vincent. Despite being a dissolute war veteran with an insatiable thirst for hard liquor, he and the boy become unlikely allies, with Vincent finding a friend in Oliver, and Oliver an improbable mentor in Vincent. Predictably, what ensues is a quirky indie comedy in which lessons are learnt the hard way and the film’s message, about the mutable definition of ‘family’ in the present day, is neatly packaged into easily digestible morsels.
Murray is foremost in the spotlight, allowed to take the stage and deliver a rousing rendition of his traditional repertoire. He’s loud, opinionated and rude, yet despite familiarising Oliver with the intricacies of an ‘each-way’ bet, Vincent inevitably imparts some much needed life lessons to the whippersnapper and, in the process, becomes the father figure Oliver needs. Thankfully, St. Vincent manages this in a way that isn’t anywhere near as schmaltzy as its synopsis would suggest and manages to anchor itself firmly between over-blown sentiment and scornful realism. This is thanks primarily to the performances of Murray and McCarthy. What could have been a breezy comedy about life’s little hardships is given real substance thanks to Murray’s effervescent charm and McCarthy’s enduring affability. Whilst Murray shines the brightest in a deferential role attuned to his on-screen persona, McCarthy provides the stronger performance. It’s a delight to see her cast for her abilities as an actress and not just as a blundering clown and it’s ultimately her incandescent and emotionally coherent performance that prevents Melfi’s depiction of marginalised America from patronising.
Whilst it never over-eggs the sentiment in its examination of the evolving familial model, the film sadly does play things a little too safe. Vincent’s enormous debts eventually evaporate into thin air, whilst major tensions between characters are either passed over with minimal attention or ignored all together. Indeed, any film involving the tragic death of a loved one, a custody battle between two feuding parents, and a stroke really shouldn’t feel so safe and cuddly. When Oliver’s teacher, Brother Geraghty (O’Dowd) tells his class that they’re to prepare a presentation about a person they feel is deserving of sanctification there’s little doubt where things are heading. Whilst Murray is deserving of a lively round-of-applause for his outstanding contribution to cinema, the climax of a dysfunctional family comedy hardly seems the appropriate place for such veneration. However, St. Vincent is so sincere that, like the extravagant tales of altruism and godliness of the latter-day saints it’s ultimately difficult to criticise the credulity of its flimsy narrative.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble