Fuse Film Review: “St. Vincent” — More Than a Formula

Because of first-rate performances, St. Vincent rises above Hollywood’s creaky ‘cranky old man finds love through friendship with needy child’ trope.

St. Vincent, written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Screening at Capitol Theater in Arlington, MA and other cinemas around New England.

Bill Murray in "St. Vincent."

Bill Murray in “St. Vincent.”

By Paul Dervis

You’ve heard this story before. Single mother relocates to the city with her shy, troubled, pre-pubescent boy. They move in next to a curmudgeon. Throw in the proverbial ‘whore with the heart of gold’ and you seemingly cover all the bases.

But this time Bill Murray and Naomi Watts play the stereotypes and both manage to break through the moldy conventions and deliver believable, three-dimensional characters, raising St. Vincent above oh, so many cheesy Hollywood retreads and delivering a film with heart AND soul.

Vince is not just some sad loner, wallowing in self pity. He is a decorated Vietnam veteran, married to a woman in the last throes of Alzheimer’s, institutionalized in a pricey private nursing home that Vince can no longer afford. He visits her every week, pretending to be a kind doctor because she no longer remembers who he is. But Vince is months behind in his payments to the facility and the administrator is about to move her to a public home. To kill his anguish, Vince drinks. To keep loneliness at bay, he has a standing date with Daka, a pregnant Eastern European lady of the evening.

Vince is a gambler, and he is in debt to his bookie. But is his gambling an addiction? Is he only doing it to score big and keep his wife housed in comfort? Life is collapsing all around him when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move next door. Maggie is a CAT Scan technician who sees terminal illness on a daily basis. She works long hours, struggles with finding ways to inform her patients of their diagnosis, let alone comfort them, and is facing a court battle over custody with her lawyer Ex.

She hires Vince to babysit nightly until she gets home from work. Vince needs the cash, so he agrees. But this doesn’t stop him from going to the track, the pub, or to his prostitute. Now, he has a companion with him.

It’s not the storyline that separates this film, it’s the performances.

Murray is cast in the role that until recently has been Jack Nicholson’s domain. But since 2003’s Lost in Translation, Murray has offered audiences devastatingly complex characters, and Vince is no exception. He has taken a role that could have been trite and turned him into an aging Everyman, filled with pain and pathos but void of sentimentality. Vincent has no tears for himself while he touches us all.

Watts, who is currently in Birdman as well, is a fine actress who consistently makes excellent choices in her film work. Who knows what compelled her to choose this project – but she does wonders with the part. Daka cares for Vince, but she is not maudlin about it. She is living on the edge, has no money for prenatal care, and is dependent on her customers. She is strong, hard, and pragmatic. As with all of the characters, she faces an unknown future. Unlike the others, she is prepared to deal with the unknown.

It is the performance of McCarthy that surprises. Molly of TV’s Mike and Molly, she has been making her living in films (Identity Thief and The Heat) playing over-the-top roles. But here, she underplays Maggie with considerable nuance. It is refreshing to see her tone down, and she does it quite well.

Poor young Mr. Lieberher. He seems out of place with the rest of the actors. He’s cute, perplexed, and wooden. And he’s right out of Central Casting. He’d only been in one film before this, and it was a short. St. Vincent needs someone like the young Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood to match his stellar cast members.

Alas, the film’s ending betrays its talented performers. After fighting the story’s potential ‘heart-warming’ sentiment, St. Vincent wallows in it. Not McCarthy’s fault, nor Watts’s. Certainly Murray is not responsible. Blame it on Hollywood.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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