On the grand scale of lovable-curmudgeon-befriends-impressionable-youth movies, St. Vincent probably ranks somewhere around the middle — slightly better, perhaps, than the self-important Gran Torino, but not nearly as good as Rushmore or Bad Santa (which itself was a spoof of such movies). It’s hard to judge films like this: The destination is often familiar and not always particularly interesting, but the ride itself isn’t always so bad, especially when you’ve got Bill Murray along for company.
Murray plays Vincent, a potty-mouthed alcoholic and compulsive gambler in Sheepshead Bay undergoing a pretty rough time: He’s totally broke; his house is worth less than his mortgage; he’s in massive debt to a loan shark (played by an engagingly tremulous Terence Howard, doing what he can with a throwaway role); and his loud new neighbors just wrecked his fence as they were moving in. Said neighbors turn out to be Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, giving some life to a pretty straight-arrow part), a single mom and CAT scan technician, and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). They’ve moved out here so shrinking-violet Oliver can attend Catholic school.
Maggie has to work long, unforgiving hours at the hospital, so she enlists Vincent to be the kid’s unlikely babysitter; the old man needs the money, so he takes the gig. But being the kind of broken, devil-may-care character who mostly exists in movies, Vincent doesn’t so much babysit the boy as take him to the track and the bar, even introducing him to his friend Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian stripper with a heart of gold. He also lets Oliver accompany him to a rest home, where he pretends to be a doctor and spends time with one of the elderly residents, Sandy (Donna Mitchell). (Hmmm, I wonder who she could be …)
First, the good news: Murray, who has made playing this kind of aging, quirky loser his stock-in-trade for some time now, is his usual reliable self. Maybe even slightly better: He’s less deadpan than usual, giving Vincent some genuine emotional volatility. This isn’t the alienated Bill Murray of Broken Flowers or Lost in Translation; this guy’s too poor, too desperate, maybe even too angry to be jaded. That lends Vincent just enough of an edge to help mitigate the film’s big problem, which is that it might as well have been written by a computer.
It’s not just the film’s broad strokes that feel programmed, it’s the small details as well, right down to the calculatedly offbeat dialogue. (Vincent: “You gotta learn to defend yourself.” Oliver: “I’m small, if you haven’t noticed.” Vincent: “So was Hitler.”) But the film is sincere, and doesn’t even seem to mind that it’s telegraphing everything well ahead of time. Early on, Oliver’s religion teacher (Chris O’Dowd) assigns the students a project of finding real-life “saints among us,” and it’s no surprise where that subplot is headed; look at the film’s title. That writer-director Ted Melfi is self-aware — that he embraces the clichés — doesn’t give him a dispensation, however. Frankly, he’s lucky he’s got Bill Murray. A great actor’s unpredictable performance narrowly saves this otherwise hopelessly predictable film.