With a big name and a photocopied script, longtime-smalltime producer Theodore Melfi makes his debut with St. Vincent – a comedy that is tolerable enough, but unlikely to leave an impression. Trading on Bill Murray as Oscar the Grouch, and his age-inappropriate friendship with a young boy, the film runs through a series of wacky and dishevelled antics before hitting a plethora of predictable speedbumps. Everything is sorted out with an on-the-nose saint motif and a school assembly that tells Murray ‘you’re alright, kid.’
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Theodore Melfi
Runtime: 102 minutes
Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Plot: Things can’t get worse for Vincent – running from a gambling debt, scorned by his regular prostitute, low on cash, and cut off by his bartender. When newly divorced Maggie and her son Oliver move in next door, his nadir is reached with the destruction of Vincent’s fence, vandalisation of his tree, and damage to his car. But Vincent and Oliver are quick to form a bond, particularly when the resident grouch is hired as Oliver’s babysitter. Teaching Oliver how to live in dishevelled style, Vincent reveals himself to be much more than a man down on his luck and wins the admiration of the young boy. Predictable complications ensue.
Review: Trading solely on Bill Murray’s fading magic, St. Vincent is an entirely predictable debut for writer-director Theodore Melfi. It will surprise no one who has seen the film that Melfi has, up until this point, made his living as a producer of various cinematic classics including: MorphMan (a T.V. movie about a rural Vet who discovers mutant parasites in cows), Roshambo (a short that seems to be a thinly veiled retelling of the original South Park joke), and Bed and Breakfast (starring Dean Cain, with the tag ‘Love is a happy accident,’ so go on, I dare you). One can imagine Melfi taking a sideways glance at the temperamental creative types he’s shaking down cash for and, like a cranky uncle in the contemporary art wing, saying ‘what’s the big deal? I could do that.’ Well, now he has – and in fairness to Mr. Melfi, the result isn’t terrible. But it isn’t good either.
Indeed, it is utterly forgettable. The film seems to have been sold entirely on the concept of the trailer wherein Bill Murray befriends a little kid (Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver) and teaches him a whole lot of age-inappropriate, dissolute old man stuff. No one gets their odd connection, and other adults stand disapprovingly in the way, but friendship triumphs in the end. There’s a long, weird tag over the credits where we get to see Bill Murray work out those legendary improvisational muscles that everyone assumes a certain generation of SNL alumni have, while we get to be thankful that the film proper was more judiciously edited. In between the Dennis the Menace meet-cute at the start and the rousing affirmation of the worth of Vincent, despite his faults, at the end we get a bland series of hijinks and complications.
As the scriptwriter, Melfi has a natural talent for letting the scenes breathe and the actors work – with some entertaining but forgettable punchlines (seen intensively in the trailer), and enough everyday business for the characters to establish their relationships with and meaning to each other. Sure, he’s overly fond of the casual car conversation motif, possibly because he is self-conscious that, as a director, creating movement within the scene is not his strong suit. So you’ll see a lot of static instillations: scenes between Oliver and Vincent sitting at the bar, scenes around kitchen tables with mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), sitting in front of lake vistas with wife Sandy, classroom scenes with students sitting. Really, a lot of sitting (and perhaps true to life). Action comes from slapstick punchlines, like the movers knocking a tree branch onto Vincent’s already decrepit car. The whole style of the film plays like an eighties after-school special. It quickly becomes obvious that writer-director Melfi is relying on his leads to rise above this material and create interest in a comic but otherwise pedestrian script.
Unfortunately, the touch of the first-timer does no favours to the plot – which very typically comes with an overstuffed close of the second act. Vincent must repay his bookie, find a new home for his ailing wife, assist with the pregnancy of his regular hooker (Naomi Watts), help Maggie win custody of son Oliver from his cheating father (a criminally underused Scott Adsitt), teach Oliver how to stick up for himself in the school yard, etc, etc. Overdetermined doesn’t even come close to describing it; and Melfi-as-scriptwriter realises it only too late, having to kill off the wife quickly, give Vincent a stroke to scare off the bookie (?!), move the hooker into the house, show that joint custody ain’t so bad, and stage one of those school assemblies of self-worth that are, according to mainstream film, the only way to incidentally discover you’re a good person after all. Vincent, it turns out, is a war hero and blah-blah-blah Melfi tells us, putting his thumb on the scale at the end like a moral lesson meets deus ex machina.
Murray himself only ever has two settings – revelatory and sleepwalker. The film is a far cry from his insightful performance in Broken Flowers (for example), and although Groundhog Day proves that with the right script even a sleepwalking Murray can be amazing, this is not the case or the script here. The result is a flat and affectless rendering of Vincent; a character that we sympathise with simply because he spends the longest amount of time in the frame. Lieberher as Oliver is blank and innocent, which is all one can really expect from a child actor in the typical role of cipher that is the child actor’s staple. McCarthy, as Oliver’s mother, actually delivers a moving and understated performance as a betrayed and vulnerable mother trying to make things work – demonstrating again that she really is an exceptional actor – but it proves a thankless task and is utterly stepped on as the film makes clear it has little interest in her character’s plight. Chris O’Dowd is Chris O’Dowd, funny as always and a wryly sarcastic saving grace for the film – even though one suspects that headshot two of four in his agency profile is scowling Catholic priest (right next to the Tobias Fünke smiling tennis player shot).
Perhaps I paint a more damning portrait of the film than I mean to; it is undoubtedly mainstream, marketable, and easy-going. It entertains tolerably; theatre-goers looking for a little more will leave disappointed. It does make me wonder why we like these ‘hooker with a heart of gold stories’ so much. Does it remind us of those strange, special friendships that make us feel important because we cracked through the grumpy exterior and established a friendship with someone where others failed or were less persistent? (Perhaps hoping others will do the same with us?) Do we cultivate these individuals as a means of redoing our disapproving father relationship? Or is it simply counter-cultural to seek connection with alienating individuals entirely out of our realm of experience, making ourselves more interesting and admirable? The gender dynamic, too, is fascinating – the character of Vincent could have only ever have been a man. The female equivalent literally is a hooker with a heart of gold (to a degree a character also present in the film, and played by a poorly accented Naomi Watts); she’s battered, and he’s a war hero. It’s also staged as a revelation, and positive on the character sheet, that he cares for his sick wife. In real life, we’d call that the bare minimum. In any case, it does not reward to give these lazily constructed characters too much thought – because honestly, the writer-director hasn’t either.
Theodore Melfi will return in a year or two with another big name and another photocopied script, and there’s nothing wrong with that – indeed Rob Reiner seems to be making a career out of it now. What is acutely embarrassing is that the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival after ‘Bill Murray Day,’ where the actor’s greatest hits were screened in the lead-up to St. Vincent. It was, no doubt, a stirring reminder that death is not a sudden and absolute thing, but a slow loss of faculties and perhaps even the loss of the very things you hold dear. Despite his frat-party going, chip-stealing antics, we seem to have lost Bill Murray. Rest in peace and retirement, old friend.
Rating: Two stars.