While laughing aloud, and heartily, through the many hilarious scenes in St. Vincent, members of the audience may find themselves taking a moment to simply awe at the power of Bill Murray. The man has spent more than 40 years in the entertainment industry making us keel over in hysterics, and even now -- in his mid-60s -- he’s still making it look effortless. With the titular role in this new film, the legendary comedian has an opportunity to showcase everything that has made us fall for him time and time again over the course of his career, and the result is one of his best movies in years.
The feature debut of writer/director Theodore Melfi, the film stars Murray as Vincent McKenna, an acerbic, gambling-addicted, slovenly curmudgeon living a loser, loner life in Brooklyn. After finding himself in dire financial straits – meaning unable to pay his Russian hooker (Naomi Watts) or local loan shark (Terrence Howard) – he finds a way to make some scratch by babysitting Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), the 12-year-old who lives next door, after school while his single mother (Melissa McCarthy) is still at work. Vincent sees this as an incredible burden initially. Eventually, though, the old man starts to take a liking to the string-bean kid and takes him under his wing. Of course, the question of whether Vincent is a positive or negative influence on Oliver is raised, but it’s far more than a one-sided relationship, as the grump begins to open up thanks to his new young friend.
The film certainly doesn’t feature the most original or inventive plot, but its honest and incredibly funny script makes St. Vincent feel fresh and entertaining. The story has its dramatic drips and tears, mostly contained to the third act, but it never comes anywhere near cloying or melodramatic - instead earning every bit by having strong characters with well-developed emotional motivations and arcs. Melfi pushes all this forward with a wonderful understanding of tone, as the comedy never gets too far off the rails (even when Vincent and Oliver are striking it big at the race track), and the heavier moments are always spliced with humor. St. Vincent is packed with a full cast of flawed, funny human characters who generate tremendous heart and hilarity.
Murray is certainly the spotlight-grabber in the film, and Vincent is everything we love about Bill Murray characters – from the smart-aleck quips to some remarkable dead-pan reactions – but it’s all the more impressive that the movie nearly gets stolen from him by his pre-teen co-star. St. Vincent is Jaeden Lieberher’s feature debut, and while he’s given an astonishing acting challenge playing opposite Murray, he pulls it off remarkably well, with the wonderful charisma of youth and by simply coming across as a really sweet, well-intentioned kid without a drop of cynicism in him. His performance is crucial to Murray’s, as he has to be the filter that allows us to see Vincent as more than a crabby old coot – and he pulls it off beautifully. As a pair, they work off each other perfectly, whether they’re dancing at a bar in front of a jukebox or practicing how to break a bully’s nose.
As a director, Melfi doesn’t do a great deal stylistically in terms of the cinematography, occasionally playing around with high angles and silhouettes, but a personal panache certainly comes through in other ways. A nice representation of the film’s old and young leads, the soundtrack is a wonderful mix of both classics and modern music, sporting bands like Jefferson Airplane, Bronze Radio Return, and Brewer & Shipley (and none of the songs feel just dropped in, and instead feel incredibly organic and fitting). He also demonstrates a great eye for both setting and production design, as the working class neighborhood fits the story impeccably, and everything about Vincent’s character can be seen in the deplorable conditions in which he lives. Melfi understood that the most important parts of St. Vincent are plot and character, and he doesn’t get distracted.
Right alongside recent titles like The Kings of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back, St. Vincent finds itself in the middle of a wave of tremendous indie coming of age stories. But it’s also a standout. It’s an honest, deeply funny movie that also reminds us that Bill Murray is one of the greatest entertainers of the last century. What more convincing do you need?