St. Vincent (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Murray as your average cranky old neighbor

small_stvicent01As watching Bill Murray in “St. Vincent”, I thought about how Murray has steadily maintained his screen persona for more than 20 years. While he looks shabbier than usual here in this movie, he is still Bill Murray we have been familiar with for years, and his usual deadpan attitude reminds us again of why he has been so successful in his own territory. He is always accompanied with that odd, melancholic aura of an outsider on the thin line between drama and comedy, and that is one of the main reasons why “St. Vincent” is constantly entertaining to watch.

In the movie, he plays Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray), an old Vietnam War veteran who has gone through his moody and lonely daily life in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn during recent years. While having a financial problem associated with his gambling at the racetrack, he lives alone with a Persian cat in his house, and only people close to him are the patrons of a local bar he frequents – and a Russian stripper girl named Daka (Naomi Watts), whom he gives some help as she enters the late stage of her pregnancy (considering their sex scene early in the film, we can only guess that Vincent is her baby’s father).

When he wakes up in the morning after another drinking night, Vincent finds that he is going to have new neighbors on the next door. Maggie Brotstein, played by Melissa McCarthy who looks more down-to-earth compared to her usual brash comic persona, is a recently divorced mother who tries to start a new life with her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), and her first encounter with Vincent is not very pleasant thanks to his cranky attitude and an unfortunate incident during her moving process.

small_stvicent04Anyway, when she is too busy with her work at a local hospital (she works as a MRI scan technician), Maggie asks Vincent to take care of her son for a while, and he agrees to be Oliver’s babysitter on the condition of regular payment. Although Vincent is not a model babysitter at all, he and Oliver gradually become  close to each other as spending time together in his house, and he comes to care about Oliver more than he admits. After he sees Oliver in a trouble with other kids of Oliver’s Catholic school, Vincent teaches some fighting skills to Oliver, and Oliver gets a moment of payback when he finally decides that enough is enough at one point. They have more fun when Vincent takes Oliver to the racetrack and his usual bar during one day, and Vincent looks a little more joyful than before as hanging around with Oliver.

The movie takes a predictable course we can easily see from the very beginning, but the director/writer Theodore Melfi takes time in establishing his characters and their relationships, and there are small scenes to amuse us with their warm-hearted humor as the movie looks around the other things besides the growing friendship between Oliver and Vincent. For instance, when Oliver begins his first day at his school, he is gently greeted by his teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), and we get a warm, humorous moment as Brother Geraghty kindly reminds his new student that his class is open to every kind of religion – including atheism.

In the meantime, Murray slowly reveals the pathos behind his cranky character while never losing his sense of deadpan humor. We are later introduced to Vincent’s senile wife Sandy (Donna Mitchell) through his routine visit to her nursing home, and Murray deftly balances his performance between humor and poignancy when Vincent visits his wife with a simple but thoughtful disguise. Although she does not recognize him any more, he still wants to support her as much as he can, and that leads to a very unwise decision later when he is notified that he must pay the money for keeping his wife stayed in the nursing home.

small_stvicent03After a certain point in the story, the movie becomes more sentimental, but Murray and other actors keep the story rolling steadily through their performances. He and young actor Jaeden Lieberher form natural rapport on the screen, and Lieberher’s unadorned performance works well as an equal counterpoint to Murray’s seasoned performance. As Oliver’s hard-working mother, Melissa McCarthy shows a more serious side of her acting talent, and she has a good scene when Maggie has a private meeting with the school principal and Brother Geraghty, who show more understanding and compassion than she expected. While Terrence Howard does not have much to do with his small thankless role, Naomi Watts brings lots of spirits to her stereotype character who is more than a stripper with a heart of gold, and Chris O’Dowd is instantly likable in his amiable supporting performance.

When the story arrives at the expected finale, it comes with a certain cliché which is virtually announced in advance, but Melfi wisely lets Murray and Lieberher carry this scene for themselves, and Murray is simply effortless as suggesting the thoughts and feelings behind his character’s silent face during that big feel-good moment. It could have been quite sappy, but Murray stays true to his character, and that makes this scene genuinely touching in spite of its sentimental aspect.

On the whole, “St. Vincent” is a pleasant lightweight comedy, and Murray gives another fine comedy performance to be added to his long, productive career, which is already filled with many other notable performances including his Oscar-nominated turn in “Lost in Translation” (2003). While the unlikely relationship in “St. Vincent” is far more conventional compared to the one in “Lost in Translation”, Murray is still fun to watch as he has always been, and he and other actors in the film make it into something worthwhile to watch and enjoy.

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