Bill Murray is an interesting actor who has had an interesting career. It has been a long career marked by numerous successes in lead, supporting, or even cameo roles. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Bill Murray is that most of the time he plays a variation of the same type of character. Sometimes he amps it up as high as it will go, other times he dials it down to subtle levels. Either way we often get some of the same characteristics in a Bill Murray character and it has served him well since his peculiar feature film debut all the way back in 1975.
His latest effort teams him up with writer and director Theodore Melfi. The movie is “St. Vincent”, a comedy/drama that plays with that familiar Murray onscreen personality yet offers the actor an opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles. Murray doesn’t disappoint. As you can probably guess, he plays a man named Vincent. He’s a Vietnam War veteran living in Brooklyn who seeks refuge from his misery in all the wrong places – alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling just to name a few. Vincent is right in Murray’s comfort zone. He is sarcastic and snarky and the humor we get from him is dry and subtly self-deprecating.
Melfi’s film starts by clearly defining Vincent’s miserable circumstances. It also exposes us to Vincent’s numerous unpleasantries. It doesn’t take long for us to originate our opinions of this man. He’s rude, cranky, frequently drunk, dishonest, and shameless. His finances are a mess, he is in deep with racehorse bookies, and his self-destructive habits are wearing on his health. These problems are accentuated but also confronted when a recently divorced mother (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door. But at the same time we eventually see that there is more to Vincent than the gruff, jagged exterior.
“St. Vincent” is all about the characters and each has their own distinct personal problems to navigate. The central relationship is between Vincent and Oliver. From the very first moment they meet the direction of the film becomes obvious. As I watched I kept thinking of a darker, edgier, subtler “Uncle Buck” minus the family dynamic. But while things are pretty predictable that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t without value. The relationships evolve at a deliberate pace which actually works in the story’s favor. But perhaps the biggest surprise came in the movie’s final act. The melodrama is ratcheted up and I knew my emotions were being set up. Yet despite that I found myself responding to it even though it felt a bit manipulative.
Bill Murray is such a natural performer at this stage in his career and he delivers a strong performance filled with more layers than you might initially think. Young Liberher is fine although it is a pretty standard performance for that type of child’s role. One of the big surprises was McCarthy. It’s not that she was great or groundbreaking. Instead I was just pleased to see a performance from her that I didn’t mind sitting through. We also get Naomi Watts as a Russian dancer and “woman of the night”. She is solid as always although I think her character is easily the most flimsy and uneven.
Again, if you know this is a Bill Murray comedy you have an idea of what you’re going to get. But “St. Vincent” allows for enough nuances to let Murray extend himself beyond what we often see him do. This isn’t a film that breaks any new ground but it does tell a good story although a fairly predictable one. You won’t find a single surprise and there are moments where the movie could have dove into some unfamiliar waters. But at the same time it does offer a handful of intriguing characters whose lives draw us in for better or for worse. That’s something many movies never accomplish.