Silver Screen: Saint Vincent ***
As hoary clichés of cinema go, a little kid melting the heart of a grumpy old man is as thick as they come. Writer/director Theodore Melfi either boldly or foolishly proceeds as though he’s the first person to have thought of it in Saint Vincent, an over-familiar dramedy that’s competently executed but would be otherwise unmemorable. However, when your crusty old man is played by Bill Murray, you don’t necessarily have to do much. Just stay out of the way.
Murray’s Vincent is a cantankerous loner who spends his days swilling bourbon at a dingy bar or blowing what’s left of his savings at the racetrack. The mortgage is due on his cluttered Brooklyn house, which is the only reason he agrees to babysit for harried single mother Maggie (SIU alum Melissa McCarthy). She’s good for twelve bucks an hour.
The kid is a polite pipsqueak named Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) who gets beat up and robbed in his first day of Catholic school, where the only friendly face is a sarcastic priest (Chris O’Dowd) with a Unitarian streak who assigns his students to present a report on a modern-day saint.
Who that candidate for sainthood might be is never really in question— check the title on your ticket stub, yo— but Melfi still plays the moment as a big reveal. It’s a bit of backhanded praise to his aptitude for small character moments to note that the climax is affecting even when it’s so bluntly telegraphed.
Saint Vincent is less concerned with its predictable plot arc and lives more in small moments and interactions where Melfi sometimes succeeds mightily. He gets a lot of the details right: Oliver’s stiff upper lip as he takes a bus to school through a strange part of the city, Vincent sparring with a bartender who’s just trying to look out for him, Maggie reluctantly favoring a bad solution over an impossible choice. The central relationships feel true. Oliver doesn’t exactly win Vincent over or ply him with precocious wisdom, he just calls him “sir” and tries to stay out of the way; Vincent doesn’t much like this, but he tolerates it.
It’s the trio of leads who really sell the material. Lieberher is an above-average moppet who doesn’t ham it up or try to use his wide-eyed cuteness as a ploy. McCarthy gets a chance to show off her range and runs with it. She’s playing the straight woman here, and the actress best known for her outsized reactions spends the entire film bottling up her emotions for the sake of others. When the dam does break, it’s more heartbreaking than hilarious.
Of course, the movie belongs to Murray, the king of cynics and wiseasses. Going full curmudgeon in his mid-sixties is well within his wheelhouse. Murray gives Vincent a raspy Brooklyn inflection and a blue-collar soulfulness, but even in the redemptive final act he doesn’t soften too much. His ability to charm without betraying his characters’ world-weariness is what allows him to sell that redemption without sacrificing authenticity. This is the quality that made him, for my money, the most affecting actor ever to play Ebenezer Scrooge (in the underrated holiday gem Scrooged): He so perfectly captures the character’s bitterness and wounded pride that when he finally repents, the conversion feels not like a plot point but a moment of real change. Melfi’s script doesn’t allow for quite the poignancy of Michael O’Donoghue’s arch Dickens adaptation, nor the revelatory vulnerability of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, but Murray knocks it out of the park anyway. He’s so totally compelling that everyone in the audience at my screening sat all the way through the closing credits, where he did nothing more than sit in a lawn chair and sing along to a scratchy tape recording of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.”
Melfi has all the necessary elements of an excellent movie, but he gilds the lily— or at least gives the lily too many subplots. Vincent’s relationship with a pregnant Eastern European prostitute (Naomi Watts) is one quirky affectation too many, and a tangent about his gambling debts to a menacing bookie (Terrence Howard) seems calculated to up the stakes on a plot that works best on a smaller scale. This is also a testament to just how eager filmmakers are to work hookers and gangsters into any given movie, no matter how improbable. Both Watts and Howard are welcome presences, or at least they would be welcome if they had anything to do other than eat up screentime in a movie already straining to include a perfunctory courtroom battle and not one but two separate bouts of medical melodrama.
Melfi could stand to take a lesson from Murray’s character. It’s not always what you do out loud that makes you who you are, but what you do quietly when nobody is paying attention.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.