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St. Vincent
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Bells Of St. Murray"
4 stars

I have seen more than my fair share of movies over the years that have blatantly attempted to manipulate audiences to their side but "St. Vincent" not only takes the cake, it pretty much seizes the entire bakery in its efforts to emotionally bludgeon viewers into submission. Though it only runs for about 100 minutes, it nevertheless finds room for such ingredients as a crusty old codger, an adorable kid, an overworked mom reeling from a recent divorce, cute animals, a sickly spouse, a priest, a pregnant stripper, a sudden illness, a local dive filled with quirky regulars, surprise revelations, people coming to terms with things, a tear-jerking testimonial in the final reel and a unique rendition of Bob Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm" playing over the end credits--these are just the ones I came up with off the top of my head without consulting my notes. In fact, if this film had been made at any other time starring practically any other actor in the SAG rolls--if Robin Williams had made it about six years ago, for example, I am fairly certain that most critics would be jeering it off the screen because of its sheer shamelessness but because it stars no less of a figure than Bill Murray--one of the most beloved performers of our time, both on screen and off--it has been receiving hosannahs in most quarters. And yet, Murray's singular presence brings so much to the proceedings that I found myself willing to overlook, or at least forgive, most of the mawkishness on display because he somehow makes it work despite itself.

Murray plays Vincent, a Staten Island-based drunken curmudgeon who pretty much hates the entire world and the world seems more than willing to reciprocate--the only beings who seem even remotely willing to tolerate him are Daka (Naomi Watts), a heavily pregnant Russian stripper that he has a weekly assignation with, a mysterious woman (Donna Mitchell) that he regularly visits at a nursing home and a Persian cat named Felix who appears almost as grumpy as his owner. During the opening scenes of the film, we follow Vincent as he goes from the track, where his losing ways attract the not-so-friendly attentions of his loan shark (Terrence Howard), to the strip club where Daka still works to the local dive bars to his run-down home, where his drunkenness causes him to destroy his own white picket fence before passing out and cracking his head on his kitchen floor. One gets the idea that with the possible exception of the fence, this is a recurring series of events in Vincent's life.

Things begin to change with the arrival of his new next-door neighbors, newly-single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her somewhat wimpy 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Things get off to a less-than-auspicious start when Maggie's movers knock a branch off of Vincent's tree that lands on his car--he cleverly blames them for his wrecked fence as well--and get worse when Oliver, following a spectacularly bad first day of school, gets locked out of his house and asks to use Vincent's phone to call his mother. Since she can't leave work, she asks Vincent to watch him for a few hours and when she agrees to pay him, he grudgingly takes him in for a child-care experience that includes "sushi" (sardines and crackers) and old Abbott & Costello movies.
In constant need of money, Vincent agrees to watch Oliver, who has unaccountably taken a shine to the coot every day after school and with nowhere else to turn, Maggie agrees. Of course, VIncent isn't about to change his routine now that he has a kid in town and brings Oliver along on his regular rounds, a move that winds up paying off in more ways than one when the kid somehow picks the trifecta at the track and wins a few thousand dollars. For his part, Vincent gives Oliver money to mow the dirt patch that he calls his "lawn" and teaches him how to break a guy's nose, a lesson that comes in handy when he is harassed by a bully at school the next day. Around this time, Oliver receives an assignment from his Catholic school teacher to investigate and report on an ordinary person that he feels deserves consideration as a possible saint. Oliver chooses Vincent, of course, and over the course of his investigation, learns some surprising facts about his new friend that causes him to see the man in an altogether new light.

As you can see, subtlety was clearly not one of the tools that debuting writer/director Ted Melfi was reaching for regularly in creating "St. Vincent." In its efforts to be a crowd-pleaser of the highest order, the film practically leaps off the screen to give viewers a footrub. There are times when this hard-sell whimsy gets to be a little too much and there are a few plot threads that could have easily been eliminated without doing much damage--the stuff involving the loan shark and Oliver's eventual friendship with the bully whose nose nose gets broken being chief among them. And yet, while the film often threatens to cross the border from simple sentimentality into gooey treacle, Melfi manages to rein things in just enough to keep it bearable. Some of the scenes are undeniably funny--the aforementioned bit involving the fence and another in which Vincent, following a dispute with his bank, loudly announces that he is closing his account and discovers that he can't until he pays $112 in overdrafts being chief among them--and Melfi also demonstrates a flair for depicting the lower-middle-class milieu that his characters inhabit.

He also shows himself to be fairly adept at handling actors as well. Although the role will no doubt be compared in some quarters to the one that Jason Schwartzmann played opposite Murray in the modern classic "Rushmore," Jaeden Lieberher manages to carve out a winning and not overly cutesy performance as Oliver--this is one of the few recent movie kids of note that feels like an actual kids instead of an artist's rendition of one. Melfi also achieves what I might have otherwise thought to be an impossibility at this point--a restrained and nicely modulated performance from Melissa McCarthy that gets some laughs and is reasonably touching without allowing her to fall back on the screamingly loud and largely unfunny bombast that has been her schtick for the last few years. There is also a really impressive performance by an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts, an amazing dramatic actress who has never quite demonstrated much of a flair for comedy over the years, as the pregnant Russian stripper. Some might argue that she is superfluous to the story as a whole and they would be largely correct but Watts is so funny that she somehow makes it work.

However, the real reason to see "St. Vincent"--the only reason to see it, quite frankly--is to bask in the beatific presence of the one and only Bill Murray in one of his increasingly rare lead performances. This is a role that has clearly be tailored precisely for his own unique, laid-back persona, both on and off-screen, but he isn't merely coasting through his performance relying solely on the considerable audience goodwill that he has banked over the years. His drier-than-dry line readings mesh perfectly with the kind of low-key comedy and drama on display here to keep the proceedings on an even keel and establishes a nice rapport with his young co-star to boot. Even the scene that would seem to have the greatest potential to go terribly wrong--the climactic scene that is literally a testimonial to the good nature of Vincent and, by extension, Murray himself--somehow manages to work because he finds just the precise note to play. Bill Murray may not be a saint per se but what he does with "St. Vincent" is borderline miraculous and more or less single-handedly absolves the film of most of its artistic sins.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25863&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/16/14 21:18:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/09/15 LANGANO Murray at his best. 4 stars
1/17/15 helen bradley-jones Bill Murrary is brilliant. as he was in 'The Man who knew too little' 5 stars
1/05/15 Roy Franz A really good movie. Bill Murray is a legend. 5 stars
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  10-Oct-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 17-Feb-2015


  DVD: 17-Feb-2015

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