St. Vincent

November, 2014, Comedy


Career advice for first-time feature film directors: choose material with which you’ve had personal experience. That’s the course Theodore Melfi choose when he wrote the sharply observed (and wondrously amusing) script for this, his initial debut behind the camera. Taking any number of incidents from his own life, he’s fashioned a blunt but warm-hearted look at the salvation of a reprobate played by Bill Murray in a performance that taps every one of that actor’s loopy personas in a lifetime on screen.  Vincent, which blends disarming sweetness with pungent observations about the real meaning of human compassion, reflects disarmingly on the human condition with deft whimsy,  making this one of the most charming movies of the year.

Murray’s Vincent is a drunken wreck living in the ramshackle remnants of what used to be a decent home in one of Brooklyn’s working class neighborhoods. He finds himself cursed with a new next-door neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) a medical technician who’s left her philandering husband with their young son Oliver in tow. Unable to fund his appetite for the services of his favorite local hooker (Naomi Watts) Vincent very reluctantly agrees to become Oliver’s babysitter. What ensues is an education on how to live one’s life that unfolds with wry observations about what constitutes true human goodness.

McCarthy sheds her typical shrillness for a sympathetic look at a working mom whose marital circumstances and income needs don’t allow her to be the kind of parent she’d much prefer to be. Watts has the thankless task of making an initially unpleasant character grudgingly acceptable as the storyline progresses, no mean feat when you’re playing opposite Murray, who channels the idiosyncratic skills of W. C. Fields better than any other comedian at work today.

As Oliver, 11 year old Jaden Lieberher provides the perfect foil for Vincent’s seedy recluse; bright but physically unimposing, he’s the kind of new kid at school who immediately finds himself getting pushed around. Vincent provides some tips in that regard which Oliver repays by learning how to compute betting odds at the racetrack.

Vincent & Oliver can’t sustain their clandestine activities forever of course and it’s the knowingly watchful eye of Brother Geraghty, Oliver’s teacher who gently persuades the boy’s parents to come to a custody accommodation so mom, dad and son can move on. Chris O’Dowd, an Irish born actor who appeared earlier this year in the much darker Irish film   Calvary, He plays Geraghty to dizzy perfection: In the running conversations he has with himself, O’Dowd steals nearly every scene he’s in, functioning as the plot’s weathervane, pointing out the best way forward.

At 64, Murray’s career has featured a string of enormously successful comedies (Ghostbusters Caddy Shack, Stripes, etc.) but as he’s aged, he’s also performed in a series of much more sophisticated films such as Rushmore, Broken Flowers and Lost In Translation which have allowed him to demonstrate a depth and vulnerability his earlier successes didn’t permit. His Vincent allows him to merge these two sources  in a performance that pays homage to his superb slapstick skills while also drawing on the intelligence displayed in his more recent work. The result is a triumph for this unique movie star now being lauded by a new generation of moviegoers.

 The climax of this whimsical film is the cleverest description of the Catholic notion of sainthood yet put on film and it’s a credit to the director and star that the uplifting moral is followed by shots of Vincent sitting in his meager back yard, singing over Bob Dylan’s recording of “Shelter from the Storm” as the movie’s credits roll across the screen. It’s the kind of deft/daft juxtaposition perfectly suited to Murray and the freshman director from whom we can only hope many more good things will come.

The Verdict? See it…unless you really don’t like a good time.

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