Call it the Grumpy Old Man syndrome. In recent years, there has been a spate of movies about hoary curmudgeons bonding with kids. From Bad Santa to Bad Grandpa, it's all about oldsters learning life lessons from youngsters and vice versa. St. Vincent doesn't break a lot of new ground in this arena although writer/director Theodore Melfi deserves credit for planting dramatic roots with tragic elements in the fertile comedic soil. Although the movie doesn't necessarily earn its mushy-at-the-center ending, moving interludes abound along the way. These are interspersed with the kind of oddball humorous moments that only Bill Murray can deliver.
Murray, with a stable of eccentric characters ranging across the landscape of his career, has selected increasingly idiosyncratic roles in recent years. Vincent is no exception. A misanthrope of the highest order, Vincent lives alone with his cat Felix (who bears a resemblance to the white feline stroked lovingly by Blofeld in some of the Connery Bonds). The arrival of a single mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), and her elementary school-age son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), in the house next door represents an unwelcome intrusion into his bubble of isolation. Aside from his "regular" prostitute, Daka (Naomi Watts), Vincent doesn't permit anyone to violate the sanctity of his house or life until Oliver shows up after school one day and asks for a place to hang out until his mother gets home from work. Vincent, in desperate need of money, sees this as an opportunity to make some quick babysitting cash. When Maggie picks up Oliver in the evening, he offers his services on a daily basis. But babysitting Oliver doesn't mean sitting around helping him with homework. It involves visits to bars, strip clubs, racetracks, and the nursing home where Vincent's Alzheimer's-afflicted wife is living out her last days.
Murray is great in this role - in fact, he's so good that one might reasonably question how much of the actor's personality bleeds into Vincent. His bonding with Jaeden Lieberher rings true - there's an edge to their interaction that's often absent in these sort of movies. In the beginning, Vincent doesn't like Oliver. He views him as an unwanted pest who has to be endured to get paid. Over time, a kind of affection brews, but it's less schmaltzy than what Hollywood typically provides. Lieberher, making his first major feature at age 11, evidences none of the awkwardness frequently exhibited by child actors. He's a natural talent whose career deserves watching.
Viewers of St. Vincent will be sent on an emotional roller coaster, but that's par for the course with most of Murray's recent endeavors. When the script calls for it, he can still bring the jokes (one wonders how much improvisation made it into the film), but elements of the movie require him to plumb dramatic depths he isn't often called upon to explore. The scenes featuring Vincent's ill wife are the most devastating. Alzheimer's can be used as a cheap way to inject melodrama into a film needing a tragic component, but Melfi's writing and Murray's performance combine to cut through any artifice. This is no extraneous element; it helps explain (although not excuse) aspects of Vincent's personality. Once we understand what's going on here, everything else about the character snaps into place.
The relationship between Vincent and Oliver lies at the core of St. Vincent and is presented in all its complexity. Some of the subplots - Vincent's interaction with Daka and the custody issues surrounding Oliver - are incompletely sketched, failing to offer anything more substantive than background color. Fortunately, the movie doesn't need much beyond the performances of Murray and Lieberher to retain viewer engagement. St. Vincent may be a little kinder and gentler than the likes of Bad Santa, but there's enough inappropriate behavior and comedic friction to fuel an entertaining 103 minutes.