Can the next-door neighbor from hell be a saint in disguise?
When a Hollywood comedy pairs a dissolute, misanthropic curmudgeon with a cute young kid, you expect a story of redemption — particularly when the movie is called “St. Vincent,” and the curmudgeon’s name is Vincent. When the curmudgeon is played by Bill Murray, it’s a done deal.
Yet unlike other tales of aging curmudgeons redeemed, from “As Good as it Gets” to “Gran Torino” to “Get Low,” writer–director Theodore Melfi’s debut film doesn’t ask its protagonist to confront his demons. What young Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) offers Vincent is not so much a moral impetus to change as an understanding heart.
Well, that’s a good thing too, isn’t it? Oliver and his newly single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) get off on the wrong foot with Vincent when they move in next door in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay neighborhood. Before long, though, Oliver is at Vincent’s place every day after school.
Maggie works overtime as a radiology nurse to send Oliver to parochial school, where an affable priest named Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) teaches students about saints, challenging them to identify “everyday saints” in their own lives for a class presentation. Oliver is a latchkey kid, but when school bullies steal Oliver’s things, he has nowhere to turn but to Vincent. You see where all this is going, right?
“St. Vincent” is a movie essentially without a single surprise, which doesn’t make it disagreeable. Murray’s relaxed turn as the foul-mouthed, seedy Vincent is a consistent pleasure; he’s less self-aware and ironic than usual, and a little needier, befitting a character who routinely loses money he doesn’t have at the racetrack, getting in deeper with a not especially menacing loan shark (Terrence Howard). (Why does he need the money? Ah, this is one of his redemptive secrets.)
McCarthy embraces the chance to break with her usual over-the-top abrasiveness in a quieter, more responsible role that still offers room for pathos. A scene in which she meets with Brother Geraghty and the kindly priest who runs the school (Ron McLarty) over Oliver’s troubles in school, confiding in them regarding the struggles of her personal life, might be the most human moment in her big-screen career.
Best of all, Murray and young Lieberher develop a nice rapport as Oliver hangs around at Vincent’s place or tags along on trips to, um, the racetrack or the bar. Oliver also meets Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian stripper and prostitute that Vincent sleeps with, when he can afford it.
With so much messiness in the characters’ lives, “St. Vincent” is an oddly neat, reassuring little film. Every plot point falls into place right on cue, but consequences are seldom taken seriously.
When Oliver is bullied at school, you know Vincent will wind up putting the fear of God into the bullies, which he does. Then Vincent teaches Oliver a self-defense move, you so know Oliver will be bullied again anyway. Oliver’s moment of resistance is poorly chosen; Brother Geraghty is right there and Oliver wasn’t in any further duress, but he lashes out anyway, with brilliant success. Would you believe after Oliver stands up to the bully, they become friends? Would you also believe that the time Vincent takes Oliver to the racetrack, Oliver picks an 800-to-one trifecta that actually pays off?
Two crises, involving Vincent’s debt to the loan shark and a personal obligation that is the reason for Vincent’s cash troubles, come to a head, only to dissolve in what could be called convenient calamity. Perhaps the most glaring dramatic lapse is the failure to follow up on one of the worst and stupidest things Vincent does, betraying a crucial trust for which he is never called to account.
Rather than a genuinely unlikable man gradually redeemed, like Murray’s characters in “Groundhog Day” or “Scrooged,” Vincent is an irascible, irresponsible lout with a heart of gold. Watts, too, is the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, only with a Russian accent and a baby bump (a plot point that’s treated with nascent pro-life sentiment). In fact, just about everyone has a heart of gold, deep down.
The priests offer the sort of genial Catholic presence that was standard in the Golden Age, although in those days the class wouldn’t include students who were Protestant, Buddhist, and atheist as well as nothing in particular — “the fastest growing religion,” Brother Geraghty quips. (Oliver’s self-identification, “I think I’m Jewish,” is a new one for the class, Brother Geraghty notes.) Catholicism, the priest adds with aplomb, is “the best religion … because we have the most rules.”
Sainthood is defined by Brother Geraghty in wholly secular terms: A saint, he says, is one whose “commitment to other human beings makes the world a better place for those around them and those who will follow.” It’s a sobering index of the Church’s profile in popular culture that “St. Vincent” offers what is perhaps, outside of horror films, the most positive Hollywood depiction of Catholicism in years.