Disclaimer: This review may be more recap than critical essay. The following may contain spoilers. Or maybe not. It is quite possible I misremembered key plot points. I have only seen the film once, on a small airplane screen at 35,000 feet, sleep-deprived and under the influence of any number of legal substances. Everyone’s a critic. But inflight entertainment is a safe space where the options are nonthreatening and your expectations low. Skip or screen, the choice is yours.
St. Vincent (2014)
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writer: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher
Runtime: 102 minutes
My Ambien-aided/induced analysis:
I have a confession to make. I am a sucker for a movie like St. Vincent, wherein a perpetually drunk and stoned, habitually unemployed misanthrope, in desperate need of cash, reluctantly agrees to babysit his next door neighbor’s preteen son. Hijinks inevitably ensue. Bill Murray’s eponymous Vincent is the ultimate curmudgeon. A man living on the periphery of society, who has all but cashed in his chips and walked away from the table. As the neighbor, Melissa McCarthy is a smart, capable, hard-working nurse and single mother, who needs a little help during that afternoon lull between when the school day and the work day end. On the days when Oliver is not responsible for Murray’s yard work or other chores, they spend their afternoons jamming to classic rock and gambling at the racetrack. When the pair wins big, Murray opens a saving account in Oliver’s name. When Oliver gets bullied and beaten by classmates at his Catholic school, Murray, assuming the unlikely role of father figure among a multitude of vestmented fathers better suited for the position, teaches him how to defend himself.
Jaeden Lieberher, in his first major role, is excellent. He distills Oliver with equal parts vulnerability and precociousness. He is intelligent and inquisitive and pensive. He is wise to the injustices and cruelties of the world, but not yet jaded by that knowledge, choosing instead to seek and see the good in people.
As the audience, we eventually learn that Oliver is also a keen observer of the human spirit; for there is more to Vincent’s apathetic opportunist than initially meets the eye. Though not the biological father (as the movie illustrates, there are many ways to support a child), he is helping Naomi Watts, the Russian prostitute with a heart of gold and bun in oven, through her pregnancy. Though unknown to the woman he loves, he pays weekly visits to a nursing home in order to bring fresh laundry to his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife.
Normally a fan of Naomi Watts, I found her character and accent a bit over the top, verging on caricature. I suppose she is there for comic relief, to further humanize Vincent, and also raise the financial stakes. For just when this mixed bag of saints and sinners starts to resemble a family, the illusion comes crashing down. Vincent, needing quick access to funds for prenatal care or the like, exploits his standing as signatory on Oliver’s bank account to drain its contents, thus betraying himself and his young friend in the transaction.
The audience, viewing Vincent through Oliver’s rose-colored lens, prays that Vincent will learn something from his experiences, realize his best self, and become the man that Oliver sees and believes in. But life isn’t like that. People do not suddenly and dramatically change, transforming into who we want or need them to be. In reality, more often than not, we are disappointed by the people we choose to love and put our confidence in. But film, a sacred medium to some (irreverence notwithstanding), has the power to reaffirm our faith and uphold this miracle of metamorphosis.
Perhaps this is me at my most masochistic, but I like to cry on airplanes. Cloaked in the thin scratchy blanket and dimmed cabin lights, I feel invisible and safe. Well, as safe as one can whilst traveling across the sky in a metal cylinder at 500 miles per hour. There is nothing revolutionary about the gospel according to St. Vincent, and yet, in its quiet way, it is forbidden fruit, hitting my emotional sweet spot and penetrating my dark, jaded heart. As Oliver delivers his final presentation at the school assembly, passionately lobbying for the sainthood of Vincent, I found myself surrendering to the film’s dogma and at the mercy of its lovingly conceived and portrayed characters. Tears began to well. I was a believer.