‘I’ ON CULTURE
While we now are in the season for quality blockbusters, each arriving one week after the other to allow time to pick up the easy money, the small movie St. Vincent has slipped into theaters. It manages to avoid being sentimental and sappy by just a hair, probably from the quickly receding hairline of Bill Murray. The movie should be overly sentimental, a young kid next to a cranky old geezer. But Murray, a brilliant actor, manages to keep things moving forward enough that you can ignore the stereotypes and set-up scenes and simply enjoy.
Vincent MacKenna (Murray) lives in a dump a home in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, with his cat. He is more than a bit of a bore who spends his time at a local bar, the racetrack and a strip club, where he borrows Russian “dancer” Daka (Naomi Watts) once a week for some, um, alone time. Then MRI tech Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move next door. Maggie has just separated from her husband and winds up needing someone to watch her son. For a variety of reasons, she lets Vincent watch him. Of course, since Vince is a drunk and nasty loser and womanizer, he might not be considered an ideal child watcher.
He takes Oliver under his wing when the boy is bullied and teaches him a bit, a tiny bit, about fighting, which gets the kid in trouble at his Catholic school. The priest, Father Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) is not bothered by the fact the boy is Jewish, since there are many different faiths in his classroom, although he does whisper to the boy that the Catholic religion is the best because they have the most rules. Oliver winds up making friends and doing many interesting things thanks to Vincent that his father can use to try to pry him away from his mother.
Yet Vincent has another side to him. We see him visiting his wife every week at an expensive nursing home even though her Alzheimer’s means she does not recognize him, and he does her laundry despite the fact that it would be handled as part of his fees. When with her, he is even charming, and the contrast between his behavior there and elsewhere is exquisitely painful.
Of course, things have to be resolved, and director Theodore Melfi ties things up in a nice sentimental knot that manages to be both heartwarming and funny, as Oliver points to Vince as someone who is a “saint among us,” finding good things about the man despite his flaws.
Murray is a wonderful actor. He manages to make a grumpy, nasty person into something far more. Not much he does is really nice, but somehow you still like him. McCarthy plays the straight-woman here. It is nice to see her not doing her wild woman routine. She manages to make Maggie a real person, one you can really care about. This woman works hard, does extra work to make needed money and takes care of her son — like many in real life, although unfortunately a rarity in both television and movies.
Watts is good as Daka, even though her accent sounds more like Natasha from Bullwinkle than any Russian I have ever met. Yet she makes a strong impression and gets a lot more laughs than might be expected. O’Dowd is good in his small role. Lieberher stands out in this expert cast. He manages to not only be the underage nerd, but also to show a wisdom not often seen in the film.
We need more movies like St. Vincent that are more based in real life than on superheroes or vampires or the rich and beautiful. Small character-based films provide a way to look at life differently. There are many films about successful young people looking for love. But those not as pretty or as talented or as wealthy also want love. This season, St. Vincent is an anomaly. It has a real story and some very good acting. There are rumors already floating around that Murray might get an Oscar nomination or even, somehow in an era when comedies and comedic actors get little respect, an actual award. This is a good movie. See it.