Over the last couple of years Bill Murray has focused less on starring in movies and more on becoming everyone’s fun, drunk uncle. The stories of Murray crashing parties only to tell the attendees that no one will ever believe them are innumerable. At this point, we believe them. It feels like a natural progression for a rebellious actor who allegedly doesn’t even have an agent, instead selecting projects based on what is pitched to him via answering machine. Murray’s legend is slowly becoming more famous than the man himself, so it is always nice to see him come back down to earth to star in a movie.
Besides a satisfying turn in The Monuments Men earlier this year (one of the only good parts of that film), Murray’s last significant role was as Franklin D. Roosevelt in 2012’s poorly received Hyde Park on Hudson. Regardless of the film’s overall quality, Murray’s performance still earned praise. That is a trend across his career – if Murray is invested in the project, he will give it his all. St. Vincent, the new film from writer-director Theodore Melfi, is no exception; luckily Murray isn’t the only diamond in the rough here.
There is rough, however. The film’s plot is far from unique. Murray stars as Vincent “Vin” McKenna, a solitary curmudgeon whose soft side is exposed by the kind heart of a child (Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver Bronstein). It is a tried-and-true storyline seen as recently as March’s Bad Words – though I’m not convinced there hasn’t been another one since then. In such a situation, the movie lives or dies on the energy and performances, much like in any rote musician biopic.
Melfi lucked out, because he got some really strong performers for his first major feature. Murray is pretty excellent, going full-Garfield in his portrayal of this seemingly misanthropic codger. Lieberher also does good work, especially for a child actor. He walks the line well between bad acting and acting that is so good it is off-putting. Naomi Watts’s Russian accent and Chris O’Dowd are enjoyable in supporting roles, but a big standout here is Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy takes a break from being the raucous, inappropriate comic relief that we know so well from Tammy, Bridesmaids, The Heat, etc. Her performance as Oliver’s mother Maggie is representative of an actual human being, rather than a caricature. This is the kind of role I’ve been begging her to take. Much like Murray’s turn toward serious work about 15 years ago, roles like this one show that McCarthy actually has range, and can evoke emotion while still being funny. Granted, she doesn’t get too many laughs in St. Vincent, but it is at least indicative of a direction she could go down.
The actors all out-perform the material, to which there is not much substance. There is very little concrete conflict in the film, and even when something big comes up – Vin undergoes a bit of a physical transformation around the halfway mark – it is quickly brushed off.
Everything in St. Vincent is designed to lead up to the big cathartic moment that everyone knows is coming in the third act. It is emotional manipulation plain and simple – the kind of thing that usually trips my “better judgment alarm.” But it worked for me here, probably because of how invested the cast was.
I can’t write a rave review of St. Vincent, which is disappointing. One day Bill Murray will star in another great movie, but until then we could do much worse than this. Count your blessings, I suppose. (Get it? Because “saint” is in the title. That’s heady stuff).