CIFF Review: St. Vincent
I have officially hit the halfway point of the Chicago International Film Festival. It is October 16th, and between the festival and squeezing in some commercial releases to meet writing commitments, I’ve seen sixteen movies so far this month. I have fifteen left to go, including four double-headers. Perhaps that’s why, in a state of pending breakdown, I didn’t mind St. Vincent very much. Academically, I know it’s not a particularly good movie, but I’ve seen so much worse recently—I’m still reeling from how utterly sh*t Dracula Untold was—that St. Vincent came off as a harmless piece of feel-good fluff.
St. Vincent stars Bill Murray as Vincent, a grumpy old man made up of bits and pieces of previous Bill Murray characters. He’s a cross between Scrooge, Bob Harris, and Herman Blume, but Murray is so talented—and so good at playing grumps—that his performance doesn’t feel recycled. He brings real sincerity and depth, which is mostly wasted because the movie is a pile of clichés. Melissa McCarthy stars as Maggie, an overworked single mom, and Naomi Watts plays Daka, a pregnant Russian hooker with the requisite heart of gold. Newcomer Jaeden Lieberher is perfectly fine as Oliver, the latchkey kid next door.
First time writer/director Theodore Melfi proves better at directing actors than he is at writing for them. Everyone manages to give a good-to-decent performance and though Watts’s accent is comically bad, she does Herculean work turning Daka into something resembling an actual human being. And McCarthy and Murray can turn coal into diamonds without exerting themselves, which is basically what they’ve done for Melfi’s script, though McCarthy’s role is the most thankless of the lot and she might as well have been called “Stock Harried Mother”.
It’s obvious from the beginning that Vincent isn’t really a bad person. He’s just lonely and irascible and, predictably, spending time with the precocious Oliver begins to warm him up. The movie is engineered to be a crowd-pleaser, delivering the expected life lessons at the expected moments, and doing so with the kind of verbose dialogue that only exists in these kinds of movies. Everyone is a super good talker—even the kid—no one ever says the wrong thing, and even in the middle of a fight people only shout heartfelt truths at each other, not the most awful sh*t they can think of in the moment, like real people do.
It’s corny as hell, but St. Vincent so plainly wants you to like it that it feels mean to not like it. And, despite its hokiness and the dubious charms of its hackneyed pseudo-redemption plot, it does manage the occasional moment of genuine emotion, mostly thanks to Murray. It reminded me of The Judge, actually, which also wanted to be a warm and fuzzy crowd-pleaser, but St. Vincent is a pretty trim narrative, running a tight 100 minutes, so it didn’t annoy me like the bloated, over-long Judge did.
St. Vincent is not a must-see by any means, unless you’re a die-hard Bill Murray fan who has to see everything he’s in. Because it’s Bill Murray starring opposite a precocious child, it’s impossible for it to not feel like a dumbed down Rushmore knock-off. I can’t really recommend this—seriously, just watch Rushmore—unless for some reason you need a harmless movie to entertain a group like, say, your family. The acting is good enough to trick people who don’t pay attention into thinking that they’re seeing a good movie, and everyone else can just enjoy Bill Murray.