Monday, November 03, 2014

St. Vincent

ST. VINCENT (Theodore Melfi, 2014)

Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray) may not be the last person a working mother would choose to babysit her child after school, but he’s surely toward the bottom of the list. Although his overwhelmed new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) isn’t privy to the information that an often-drunk Vincent is indebted to an unsavory racetrack figure (Terrence Howard) and keeps a weekly home appointment with a pregnant Russian hooker (Naomi Watts), the senior citizen’s surly nature should be sufficient to have her look elsewhere for childcare options. Nevertheless, in ST. VINCENT her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) seems to get along fine with the crusty old man next door who begrudgingly helps after the boy’s classmates steal his possessions from his gym locker.

Maggie is working long hours at a new hospital job and worrying about an impending custody fight with her ex-husband, so she’s thankful that anyone can keep an eye on Oliver. Little does she know that Vincent is teaching him how to fight back against the bullies at St. Patrick’s School, letting him gamble at Belmont Park, and taking him to a bar. Oliver is well aware of the pressures on his mother. He covers up and omits telling her his activities with Vincent, leaving Maggie to find out the truth at the most inopportune time possible.

Writer-director Theodore Melfi’s ST. VINCENT seems cobbled from the independent film cliché handbook. It’s slightly quirkier than a conventional network television sitcom yet beholden to a feel-good imperative that isn’t especially convincing. By picking up and discarding subplots like tissues, this maudlin comedy-drama cycles Murray through a range of situations fit for an awards show reel without lending much emotional heft to them.

Murray’s bad grandpa proxy plays best when permitted to be his crotchety self without explanations or excuses. Vincent’s rough edges are never sanded off completely, and Murray is funnier and more interesting when he’s granted the freedom to be as nasty as he wants to be, at least within the limits of this sentimental film. Clearly Vincent is on a course for a redemptive arc, but offering reasons in shorthand for his hardness make him a less credible character. The war between his internal tenderness and external abrasiveness aren’t reconciled so much as they are dispelled by gooey screenwriting conveniences.

ST. VINCENT’s variation on ABOUT A BOY should find its strength in developing the mutually beneficial relationship between a curmudgeon and pre-teen. In piling on the plot contrivances it doesn’t provide the space to observe why their unlikely friendship comes to gain great meaning for both. Melfi has the film chugging toward a prescribed heartwarming conclusion and Oliver’s effective sanctifying speech while Murray’s performance suggests someone who may be touched that the boy admires him but hasn’t really learned any lessons that will significantly alter his behavior. The final scene, with Vincent sneaking a cigarette and singing along to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” during the end credits may be meant as a grace note, but it gives the impression of a character that’s broken away from its creator’s intent.

Grade: C

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