Evidently, a movie can be both completely predictable and completely enjoyable at the same time.
Before seeing St. Vincent, the debut feature from Theodore Melfi, I knew very little about it. I knew that Bill Murray plays a cranky old man who lives next door to a single mother, and he develops a relationship with this woman’s young son. That’s it. I knew it was an indie movie, so I predicted to anyone who’d listen that the movie would definitely have a scene featuring an indie rock song punctuating an important uplifting moment. About this, I was wrong. The song by The National, “Start a War,” is used to punctuate an emotionally sad moment. How predictable was the rest of the film, you ask?
The opening credits of the film are spent establishing Vincent’s defining character traits. He drinks and drives, he lies, he’s broke, and he lives alone in a dilapidated house in Brooklyn. He’s just a terrible person who doesn’t like other people, and other people don’t like him. He can’t even afford to pay his pregnant Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts). One morning, a moving fan knocks a tree branch onto his car, and the single mother and her son Oliver are moving in next door.
Oliver has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on his first day in private school, and unable to get into his house, he visits Vincent next door. Hard up for money, he agrees to “babysit” Oliver after negotiating a price with Oliver’s mom, a medical technician played by Melissa McCarthy. Will they each learn from each other to become better people? No way!
The framing device of the movie, that Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) has a teacher (Chris O’Dowd) who is teaching them about saints, and asking people to find saints in the community to be presented in front of an assembly, is patently ridiculous. The movie is called St. Vincent, the character is Vincent, and there is an assembly about saints in the real world. How do you think this might go? It’s that laziness in the structure that removes almost all of the surprise from the movie, but thank goodness the film has a lot going for it otherwise.
Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy are excellent comic actors who don’t always get the opportunity to show how good their timing can be. This is no over-the-top dialogue with crazy prat falls. This is character based comedy, and everyone makes it work here. There are some moments of perfect timing here that should be shown to people studying comedy on film. Like a great rock song, it’s the space between the dialogue that makes it work.
Other than the two leads and Oliver, the rest of the cast isn’t given that much to do. Naomi Watts comes across as an unnecessary mix of eye candy and quirk. Terrence Howard plays an antagonist that could easily have been written out of the movie, and it wouldn’t have come out any different in the end.
This is a film that wants to pull on your heartstrings, but unlike the best emotional movies, it shouts “Hey we’re gonna pull on your heartstrings!” from the very beginning. Structurally, this movie is both cliche and disappointing, but the clever dialogue and performances will keep you entertained throughout.
St. Vincent opens today in San Francisco