We’ve seen this story many times before – a curmudgeonly guy befriends an adorable little boy (or girl) and the two of them get changed for the better in the process. The only difference this time around is that the curmudgeon in ST. VINCENT is played by the hugely underrated Bill Murray while the boy is played by first-timer Jaeden Lieberher, who is not only too cute for words but he’s a pretty good actor as well.
When a newly divorced mom and her bright but puny pre-teenaged son move to Brooklyn, they quickly find their lives intertwined with that of their next-door neighbour – a hard boiled Vietnam vet who prefers to live life solely on his own terms. Being the family’s sole income earner, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) has to work long hours as a hospital technician and she has no choice but to leave Oliver (Lieberher) in Vince’s (Murray) care after he finishes school for the day. This is the last thing the grumpy old guy wants as he is quite content living out his days drinking, smoking, gambling and shtupping his Russian exotic dancer girlfriend, Daka (Naomi Watts). But, as we soon learn, Vince is also flat broke, so he agrees to look after Oliver – for a fee, of course. Desperate times for both Maggie and Vince call for desperate actions.
As we would expect, Vince begrudgingly tolerates his new charge but he’s not about to let the kid change his own habits. He takes Oliver to a bar (isn’t that slightly illegal?), teaches him how to handicap horses at the racetrack and gives him tips on how to break someone’s nose with just a single jab. Oliver takes it all in, as he thirsts for both practical life lessons and some fatherly companionship even if that father figure is more than a bit rough around the edges. Along the way, Oliver gets to see a side of Vince that many do not. Underneath all the gruffness, Vince really is a good guy with a good heart.
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ST. VINCENT is somewhat of a cross between BAD SANTA and THE KARATE KID. It does get a bit schmaltzy toward the end but, overall, the performances and the camerawork make this an enjoyable film to watch. Murray is a delight with his one liners and one has to wonder if they were scripted. Certainly, the scene that comes up over the closing credits was improvised. McCarthy, thankfully, dialled back her normal OTT shtick here to play a simple woman who struggles with the balancing act between work and family. I think a lot of single mothers would identify with her even if they themselves wouldn’t ever consider leaving their child in the care of a reprobate like Vince. (Or maybe they would?) With two clowns like Murray and McCarthy sharing the stage, the results could have been disastrous. Fortunately, McCarthy and director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi had the good sense to let Murray be the only one getting the laughs here.
ST. VINCENT works best because of its honesty. It’s probably not going to change the way you view the world, but it is good entertainment and sometimes that’s just enough.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 30:35.)