Bill Murray is at the age where he can play a grandfather, a wise old sage or a lovable curmudgeon, ala Walter Matthau, but less jowly. In Theodore Melfi’s feature-length directorial debut St. Vincent, Murray takes the lead in stride, giving a wonderful performance as a retiree who reveals through the simple act of watching a neighbor’s kid, much to his disdain, more and more of his true character while being a prick on the exterior.
New neighbors Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in and after a rough introduction, Vincent offers to watch Oliver as Maggie has no other recourse with a pending divorce and full-time job. Vincent, never having children and not seeming to care for them at all, gives Oliver a place to do his homework and learn about life, while making $11/hour from Melissa. When Oliver is bullied, Vincent bears witness and puts the fear of god – he, the local who knows their mothers in more way than one – into the bullies, then gives Oliver a lesson on how to defend himself and break a would-be attackers nose.
Lieberher stands out more and more as the film progresses and reminded me of Abigail Breslin when she starred in Little Miss Sunshine and stole the show. Lieberher is in the same league as Breslin, shining from the periphery. Poignant quotable observations such as “It’s gonna be a long life” provoke thought and sum up scenes quite well. Oliver is given the task of not only following along with Vincent’s lead – whether to the local bar, the racetrack or the bank, where Vincent stashes track winnings in an account under his ‘grandson’s’ name – but to improve on the situation in the only way a 9-year-old can, through honest observations.
Through the course of the film, and via the directive of his teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), Oliver is assigned to look for living saints – less Mother Teresa and more ‘people you know’ – and make a presentation through his research. Seeing through the surface that Vincent wears like a coat of armor, Oliver unlocks the mystery of this ornery individual that few would consider a saint without delving deeper into his character. It is through Murray’s acting and Melfi’s writing that we get a well-composed character that is far from superficial but could be categorized as ‘a drunk mean old man’. The only weird part of Murray’s portrayal of Vincent is his Brooklyn accent, as I cannot recall a film where Murray used an accent, let alone in a convincing manner; at one point it sounded like a weak Woody Allen impression but overall, it grows on you.
McCarthy makes a strong jump into a dramatic role with far less humor in what is simply her finest film role yet, better than Bridesmaids. Trying to keep it all together through a pending divorce and custody battle, Maggie is strong and focused on doing the best for Oliver, even if it means leaving her with Vincent on a regular basis. Maggie appears as the left brain to assist the right brain that is Vincent, both providing balance to the other in a symbiotic relationship. When Vincent goes to the hospital, Maggie, Oliver and Daka (Naomi Watts) tend to Vincent and get what parts of his life straightened out that they can. Watts falls so deep into playing the Russian Daka, a ‘lady of the night’ as Oliver is informed, that you forget it is Watts behind the pregnant belly and large sunglasses of a stripper.
Making sacrifices and putting others above yourself when you don’t want to are part of being a saint. Vincent’s experience with Oliver is heartfelt and provides one with guidance and the other with purpose, something both parties are able to work off of symbiotically. St. Vincent is yet another great film for Bill Murray to shine while sharing the spotlight with Jaeden Lieberher.