Bill Murray is a great comic actor, a fact we’ve known since he hit the big time when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1977. He’s also a very good dramatic actor, as evidenced by his work in a ton of movies, including Tootsie (1982), Groundhog Day (1993), Rushmore (1998), Lost In Translation (2003), and this year’s excellent (if depressing) HBO film Olive Kitteridge.
Which brings us to Murray’s latest, St. Vincent, in which the sixty-four-year-old stars as Vincent MacKenna, a cranky, antisocial, hard-drinking Vietnam veteran beset by physical, financial, and emotional problems. This is not a comedy, although Murray provides a few grins here and there—as does Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) playing a kindly, clever, young-ish Catholic school teacher. So does a terrific child actor named Jaeden Lieberher. He plays a smart, bullied pre-teen named Oliver who moves in next door to Vincent with his struggling single mother (Melissa McCarthy) and immediately comes under his curmudgeonly neighbor’s spell.
St. Vincent was written and directly by Theodore Melfi, who based Murray’s character on his wife’s father, a Vietnam veteran “who had a gaggle of kids he never really knew,” and who “abandoned my wife when she was nine-years-old,” Melfi told an interviewer. When she was thirty-four, Melfi’s wife sent her father “a letter and then the phone rang. They reconnected and became father and daughter for the last ten years of his life. He became a saint for her and she for him.”
When the film opens Vincent is anything but saint-like. He is a slovenly introvert who has a regular date with a pregnant prostitute (Naomi Watts with a Russian accent), drinks to excess, and blows money regularly at the race track. Things start to go rapidly downhill for Vincent when he has to come up with money he doesn’t have to pay off his gambling debts.
As the plot spins out (mainly involving Vincent’s reluctant babysitting of Oliver and the consequences it has for both of them), we begin to see some of his saintly qualities. One of them involves his service in the Vietnam War where he fought heroically in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.
This small film could have descended into hokum. In fact, it comes very close at times. But it is saved by the natural and endearing acting of young Jaeden Liberher, by Murray’s charisma, and by a plot that has a few surprises. Several times Melfi makes the point that saints are, after all, human and Vincent is as human as they get, a walking contradiction of strengths and weaknesses.
Then there is the image question. Is Vincent just another in a long line of stereotypically Hollywood screwed-up Vietnam vets? The good news is that he isn’t. Yes, he drinks, curses, and treats people unkindly. But that’s a far cry from the walking-time-bomb cardboard cut-out Hollywood used to offer us in countless movies and TV shows. Vincent is a fully flushed out human being with good and bad qualities—anything but a stereotype.
St. Vincent is a serious-minded film with a few laughs and has an ending that will not surprise you. But it’s entertaining and thoughtful. And worth seeing.
Posted on December 21st 2014 in Feature Films