From November to January, audiences become saturated with a slew of films destined for the red carpet. Formulaic trailers of complicated protagonists framed by big name directors have spawned endless online parodies. While those films deserve critical analysis in their own right, sometimes audiences need a film cutting across heavier material. Caught between such films is Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent. Bill Murray stars in this film as Vin McKenna, a crotchety man living a squalid existence, keeping only a Russian hooker named Daka (Naomi Watts) and a cat called Felix as company. The arrival of newly divorced Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her lonely son Oliver (Jaeden Liberher) forces Vin to acknowledge his caring for others. Combining remarkable performances and stylistic balance, St. Vincent provides crisp humor amidst somber reality.
In order to make this semi-independent film accessible to audiences, St. Vincent tops its billing with veteran Hollywood actors like Murray and McCarthy. However, the platform of the independent film allows these actors to assume roles diverging from their typecast. Though retaining the goofy qualities of past characters, Murray’s depiction on Vin strikes a soft chord of discomfort through his struggle of self-destruction. His crusted clothing and hoarder’s delight of an apartment completes the image of the black sheep relative or the bar patron keeping his spot at the counter for the last 20 years. Vin relies on speech to maintain his impregnable shell of isolation, which Murray pays attention to in his lack of revealing body language. His movements and facial gestures betray little beyond his age. By controlling those movements, Vin controls his story through rants to telemarketers or jokes to fellow bar patrons. Dialogue provides the key to unlocking Vin’s past and passions, making his speech therapy following his stroke an even more vulnerable moment. Audiences are not granted access into Vin’s mind, so we work with him in his moment of growth.
McCarthy’s performance as Maggie is additionally noteworthy in its breaking of an archetype. Despite an established television career, McCarthy derives her fame from being the “loud and obnoxious” character in films such as Bridesmaids. While proving hilarious in that film, repeating it for subsequent films makes the archetype run stale. McCarthy has yet to find a film to transcend her unfortunate label. Playing Maggie in this film required delicate handling, portraying varying degrees of defenselessness after a rough divorce. Her manner is soft-spoken and the camera often frames her in tight spaces to emphasize her constant retreat from conflict. Not one crack is made about her weight, even as a self-deprecating joke, allowing her to become a person rather than a stereotype. Her performance is not particularly memorable, but it is perhaps enough for more nuanced roles in her future. With actors deviating from their normal typecast, St. Vincent adds a certain richness that keeps audience curiosity lingering.
St. Vincent does not claim advanced social criticism. It does not layer multiple genres within a short 90 minutes. What draws audiences to the film is that it delivers exactly what it promises. From the trailer, the film portrays a comedy with darker echoes designed for light emotional catharsis. To an extent, even the discussion of acting performances above is almost over-analysis. As audiences, we laugh at Vin forcing Oliver to mow a dirt lawn, cheer when Oliver punches—but ultimately befriends—the school bully Ocinski (Dario Barroso), and empathize with Maggie’s desire to start her new life. The film does not seek debate regarding the social stratification of Brooklyn neighborhoods or examination of the influence of chronic illness on family life; it only asks us to watch and enjoy, without further expectation or additional preparation.
Of course, weaknesses surround the film, most concerning the absence of tension. St. Vincent reveals points of tension that suddenly disappear by the end of the film. The first 15 minutes of the film discloses Vin’s troubles with the mob, giving him two weeks to pay past debts. This ultimatum facilitates a moment in the film where Vin withdraws the entirety of Oliver’s savings account, which he set up for Oliver, and blows it on the horse track in hopes to increase his winnings. He then goes to wallow at his apartment where a mob bookie, played by Terrence Howard, threatens his life for the money. After Vin suffers a stroke and collapses, the bookie leaves the house and never returns to the screen. In addition, no mention is made of the stolen money, quietly skirting the inevitable argument between Vin and Oliver. The subplot of Vin’s financial troubles is never employed with real consistency, watering down potential danger. However, these weaknesses are balanced with scenes of poignancy, such as Vin’s attempts to reach through to his wife, sick with Alzheimer’s. Such scenes ground audiences within the comedic touches of the film, bringing it back to a natural state. In fact, the only times where the movies loses that state comes from moments where it tries to hard with the awkward humor or forces the connections of Vin as the modern day saint. The film does not go against its natural flow to make its point and refuses to pull any punches.
St. Vincent reminds us that, as audiences, we do not always need to choose the “more important” film. Hosting a marathon of Oscar films makes for a fun weekend, but it does not make you any less of a film-lover to watch films that may be considered less than pristine. So do yourself a favor and see this film. You will leave the theater breathing easier for doing so.