To call St. Vincent a conventional movie doesn't quite do it justice. No, it's more like ten conventional movies wrapped into one: a treasure chest of hoary clichés, a 102-minute Hallmark card, an old dog performing old tricks, etc. There isn't a single scene in the movie that feels original, but writer/director Theodore Melfi and his exceptional cast deserve credit for giving this hokum a sincere sales pitch. Like its main character, the movie is kinda likable in spite of itself.
Vincent (Bill Murray, Lost in Translation) is a crusty old Vietnam war veteran who lives by himself in a filthy little house in Brooklyn. He's retired, and seems to spend his days finding new ways to get into trouble. He smokes, he drinks, he gambles, he spends time with a pregnant prostitute (Naomi Watts, The Painted Veil), he cusses, he insults people – you know, all of the vices that make him seem like a deeply flawed guy in an adorable, harmless sort of way. He's accumulated some pretty heavy gambling debts, and now he's got a local mobster (Terrence Howard, Iron Man) breathing down his neck. If Vincent doesn't come up with a whole lot of cash within a couple of weeks, there will be serious consequences.
Meanwhile, Vincent gets some new neighbors: a single mom named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids) and her sweet-natured son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie occasionally has to work late at the hospital, so she hires Vincent to keep an eye on Oliver after school. Under most circumstances, Vincent would reject the arrangement, but he needs the cash. As you might expect, the kid and the old man begin to impact each other in a variety of ways. Vincent exposes Oliver to some of life's saltier elements, and Oliver begins to bring out ol' Vincent's buried humanity.
There's a vaguely Bad Santa-esque quality to some of the film's early scenes, but it's immediately obvious that Vincent a pretty harmless character. The movie doesn't wait long to start revealing his softer side, tossing out one plot development after another designed to make him more sympathetic. Gently risque (and occasionally chuckle-inducing) jokes are offset by bit and pieces of crime drama, romantic drama, medical drama and courtroom drama, much of it agreeably underscored by breezy melodies from the likes of Jeff Tweedy, The National, Jefferson Airplane and Bob Dylan.
This is hardly among Bill Murray's finest performances – neither as funny as his best comedic roles nor as powerful as his best dramatic ones - but he's enjoyably scruffy, playing his scenes with a somewhat wobbly Ratso Rizzo accent and a consistent twinkle in his eye. Melissa McCarthy does nice work, too, setting aside her blustery comic persona and turning in a relatively low-key, persuasive performance as Oliver's long-suffering mom. Oliver occasionally feels a bit too much like a precocious movie kid – his predilection for dispensing literary quotes and constant use of the word “sir” make him feel like a Wes Anderson creation sans Wes Anderson's tonal specificity – but young Mr. Lieberher has an appealingly open face and a sweet, soulful presence. Naomi Watts brings some welcome comic exuberance to a worn-out “hooker with a heart of gold” part, and Chris O'Dowd (Cuban Fury) has a few charming scenes as an open-minded Catholic school teacher.
St. Vincent is a sentimental, warmhearted film, but it's difficult not to be disappointed by the way it takes a lovably flawed character and slowly transforms him into a lovably flawless character (I wasn't expecting the “Saint” part of the title to be quite so literal). Early on, Vincent is taking Oliver to strip clubs and race tracks. Late in the movie, Vincent is cautioning Oliver not to steal candy from vending machines. The movie suggests that we should love people regardless of their weaknesses, but disingenuously suggests that if we love them enough, their weaknesses will disappear. A less conventional, more honest version of this story might have been something special. Instead, we'll have to settle for agreeable fluff.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2014