St. Vincent

Bill Murray has his best role in years in this winning comedy-drama

St. Vincent

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Written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Starring Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Katharina Damm, Scott Adsit.

Bill Murray is Vincent MacKenna, a cantankerous, drunken, gambling-addicted neighbor who inadvertently becomes a caretaker for a young boy in St. Vincent, an effective if overly familiar-feeling comedy-drama that, like its lead character, is careful never to get too schmaltzy – until the finale, which goes the distance and ends up winning us over. 

There’s not much new here in terms of story, but the film gives Murray his best role in nearly a decade, since the days of Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation. Jack Nicholson was originally rumored for the part – which isn’t dissimilar to his turn in As Good As It Gets – but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Murray as Vincent here, in a role that fits him perfectly. 

It’s not just a good role – Murray is terrific here, mining comedy from deadpan reactions and never straying from his character’s bitterly sarcastic roots. It’s a performance that would garner award-season recognition, if the product that contained it was just a little more polished. 

That’s a little surprising, because the screenplay (by director Theodore Melfi) was included in the Hollywood Black List – a list of best unproduced scripts – back in 2011. Based on hi screenplay, Melfi was able to secure not just the directing gig, but a first-rate cast.

Alongside Murray’s permanently pissed-off malcontent, that cast includes Naomi Watts as the Russian prostitute who keeps Vincent company while his wife is in a nursing home slowly dying of with dementia, and Terrence Howard as the small-time but threatening bookie who Vincent isn’t able to pay.

Then there’s Melissa McCarthy as Maggie, the single working mother who moves in next door to after her marriage dissolves. McCarthy broke out on the comedy scene in 2011’s Bridesmaids, but has been nails-on-chalkboard annoying in films like Identity Thief and Tammy. Here, she has a rare dramatic role and soars with it: we can feel the hardships of single motherhood, even if the film oversimplifies her situation and gives her an easy out in the end.  

Chris O’Dowd, Scott Adsit, Nate Corddry, and Ann Dowd appear in small – but key – roles. 

But St. Vincent belongs to Murray and the precocious young kid – Jaeden Lieberher, who plays Maggie’s son, Oliver. He’s adjusting to a new life, in a new school, with new threats – and immediately takes a shine to Vincent when he inadvertently defends Oliver from some bullies. While most of the film retains a gruff, irreverent exterior, the climactic scenes between Murray and Lieberher are ultimately heartwarming. 

You know where St. Vincent is going. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable ride getting there. Filled with winning performances and a refreshing lack of malice – most of the characters here are just trying to do the right thing – Melfi’s sure-handed adaptation of his acclaimed script is an appealing, if lightweight, dramedy and a terrific showcase for its star.

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