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St. Vincent

D: Theodore Melfi / 102m

Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Donna Mitchell, Dario Barosso

Vincent McKenna (Murray) is the kind of curmudgeonly old man it’s best to steer clear of. He drinks to excess, gambles too much, and is about as sociable as a dose of the clap; in short, he’s the kind of you’d cross the street to avoid. When new neighbours Maggie (McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Lieberher) move in next door, relations are initially frosty as the removals van causes damage to Vincent’s car. On Oliver’s first day at his new school he falls foul of bully Ocinski (Barosso) and has his keys, wallet and phone stolen. He manages to get home but with his mother at work and no other way of getting in, he calls on Vincent to use his phone to call his mother. Vincent isn’t best pleased but agrees nevertheless and Oliver stays with him until Maggie can get home from work – but not before he’s agreed a babysitting rate with her.

The money is important as Vincent’s terrible luck at gambling has left him very short of money. He can’t get a loan from the bank, he owes too much money to loan shark Zucko (Howard), and he’s behind on payments to the care home that looks after his wife Sandy (Mitchell). With Maggie working late more and more, he and Oliver spend more and more time together. Vincent teaches Oliver to defend himself from bullies such as Ocinski, and takes him to the race track where Oliver learns how to bet. He also bonds with the old man, becoming the only friend Vincent really has, unless you count pregnant stripper Daka (Watts), who has a fondness for the old man that she plays down at every opportunity.

When Vincent and Oliver win big at the race track, it’s potentially the beginning of a big change in Vincent’s life, but he still avoids paying Zucko. Meanwhile, Maggie’s husband begins a custody battle for Oliver, leading to an awkward court appearance where the depth of her son’s relationship with Vincent is revealed, and with less than perfect consequences. And matters are made worse when Zucko pays Vincent a surprise visit at home.

St. Vincent - scene

If you’re looking to make a movie where the main character is a caustic, mean-spirited, emotionally withdrawn malcontent, well, in the words of one of his earlier movies, “Who ya gonna call?” The obvious answer is Bill Murray, the one actor who does “grumpy” better than anyone else on the planet, and for whom the art of being a killjoy seems like second nature. He’s the perfect choice to play Vincent, and it’s a good job writer/director Melfi was able to get him to commit to the movie because without him, St. Vincent may not have turned out to be as enjoyable as it actually is.

It’s a particular kind of actor who can pull off such a deceptively difficult role, for while Vincent is outwardly abrasive, there’s a grudging kindness and likeability buried below the surface that is reserved for the people he cares about. As he becomes more and more enamoured of Oliver and Maggie, it’s good to see that the script doesn’t do the one thing that most movies of this kind do without fail: have the main character renounce his mordant ways and become more agreeable. Here, Vincent remains unlikeable to pretty much everyone for the entire movie, allowing Murray to paint a convincing portrait of a man continually at war with a world that kicks the rug out from under him at nearly every opportunity. His antipathy towards the world is entirely understandable, but it’s his willingness to let some people in, while retaining that antipathy, that saves the character from being entirely one note.

Murray grabs the character of Vincent and gives the kind of assured, entirely believable performance that only he can pull off, making the old man by turns acerbically funny, justly melancholy, disappointingly selfish, and unsurprisingly reticent. It’s a virtuoso performance, one that lifts the movie up and out of the rut of its less than original plotting and straightforward storylines. Aside from a couple of instances that don’t turn out in just the way the viewer might expect – the result of the custody hearing, the outcome of Zucko’s home visit – Melfi, making his feature debut as writer/director, has assembled an old-fashioned drama with over-familiar characters we’ve all seen at least a dozen times before, added the kind of spiteful humour that modern audiences appreciate, and has made his movie seem fresh and unconventional.

He’s also procured a raft of excellent performances, and not just from Murray. Leaving behind the forced hilarity of movies such as The Heat (2013) and Tammy (2014), McCarthy excels as Oliver’s mother, playing her with an honesty and put-upon vulnerability that works effectively against Murray’s obnoxious grouch. Watts is equally as good as the pregnant Daka, her hard-boiled exterior the perfect foil for Vincent’s ingrained irascibility; when they spar it’s like watching an old married couple, and the fondness that builds up in such a relationship. Howard, sadly, has little to do but appear menacing in a couple of scenes, and O’Dowd works his magic as Oliver’s home room teacher, a priest with very relaxed ideas about prayer. But the real revelation here is Lieberher as Oliver – like Melfi, making his feature debut – giving the role a delicate, yet simple touch that dispels the idea early on that Oliver is going to be one of those precious and precocious kids that Hollywood is so fond of putting on screen. He’s a natural, comfortable with his dialogue and able to hold his own with Murray (it really feels like he’s been doing this for a lot longer).

With its deft one-liners and subtle nuances, Melfi’s script makes the occasional stumble – Zucko disappears completely after he visits Vincent, Oliver and Ocinski become friends a little too easily (you’ll understand why when you see the movie), and the sub-plot involving Vincent’s wife adds little to the mix – but all in all this is a solid, hugely enjoyable movie that features some terrific performances, a great score by Theodore Shapiro, and enough charm to melt a dozen icebergs.

Rating: 8/10 – a great first feature from Melfi – who’s now one to watch out for – St. Vincent is a breath of fresh air, and rarely puts a foot wrong with its main characters; Murray carries the movie with ease, and the movie’s indie sensibility isn’t allowed to overwhelm the material, making for a very good time to be had by all.