The comedy-drama St. Vincent, by first-time feature writer-director Ted Melfi, employs several well-worn story and character archetypes from films such as Rushmore, Dennis the Menace and even Pretty Woman. There’s the retired curmudgeon (Bill Murray) who begrudgingly becomes entwined in the lives of his new neighbors, single mom (Melissa McCarthy) and her precocious son (Jaeden Lieberher). Throw in a Russian hooker with a heart of silver-plated gold (Naomi Watts) and a tough loan shark (Terrence Howard) to complete the portrait.
Despite the predictability of St. Vincent’s journey, an underlying charm and emotion reach beyond the screen. Credit an acting ensemble that underplays the script’s maudlin tendencies and allows the humor to surface.
The role of Vincent “Vin” McKenna is tailored to Murray, whom we’ve already seen in similar roles: Take his disillusioned, world-weary Herman Blume in the aforementioned Rushmore, a film in which he served as an accidental mentor to young Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), as well as lonely aging actor Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Vincent echoes both seminal Murray characters, but Melfi has added a few more layers: Vin’s a grouch, a drunk and a gambler who survives on sardines and crackers—hardly typical saint material. What money he can scrounge together goes toward the horses and his weekly “appointments” with pregnant stripper/hooker Daka. Watts plays deliciously against type in the role, stretching her comedic chops while trying (unsuccessfully) to look as unglamorous as she can.
When Maggie and Oliver (McCarthy and Lieberher) move in next door to Vin—in what has to be the quietest and last hipster-free enclave in Brooklyn—the neighbors don’t start on the greatest of terms. Their ’hood isn’t the only big leap of faith Melfi asks of viewers: CAT scan technician Maggie, who’s battling her lawyer ex-husband for custody of Oliver, allows Vin to babysit the 12-year-old after school—despite a cheap rate, most parents wouldn’t leave their kids with a man who looks more predator than parent.
Oliver, played with a great, wide-eyed innocence by newcomer Lieberher, wears down Vin, who eventually takes the boy under his wing. He teaches the youngster the finer points of manhood: fighting the bullies at school, horse racing, day drinking and hanging out with a woman of the night (which to Oliver means that Daka is a “lady who works at night”).
The plot takes several melodramatic turns, revealing numerous secrets and reasons to evoke empathy for Vin. Loose ends get tied together too cutely during a scene at a school assembly in which Oliver’s class reports on “the saints among us.” (The movie was largely inspired by an actual homework assignment given Melfi’s niece, whom he and his wife adopted as their daughter.) Much of the spoon-fed exposition isn’t necessary, though. Murray alone imbues both a sadness and humanity in Vin—making him accessible to the audience despite his shortcomings and rough-hewn style. The extraneous layers, while tear-jerking, ultimately detract from the relationships at the heart of the film.
The supporting actors lend a depth to their characters that’s lacking on the page. During his brief screen time, Howard manages to convey that he may be a head-cracking loan shark, but he’s still conflicted it when it comes to hurting customers like Vin. Watts is surprisingly funny as the straight-talking prostitute, who becomes one of Vin’s only friends and doesn’t charge him for it.
While Watts’ Daka is the most colorful female role in St. Vincent, McCarthy’s working mom, struggling to make a new life for herself and son, is at once the most relatable—and frustrating. McCarthy delivers a controlled performance, showing a quieter side to her range previously overshadowed by her over-the-top work in Tammy, Identity Thief or The Heat. Maggie’s insecurity and vulnerability lets viewers forgive the questionable parenting decisions and contradictory plot points. Oliver’s allowed to ride a public bus to school alone, but can’t stay home by himself? Are there no friends or family around to help Maggie so she isn’t forced to leave her only son with a grumpy stranger?
Melfi, a successful commercial director, tries a little too hard to smooth the rough edges of his subjects and their dilemmas. That’s not to say St. Vincent is a bad film—it isn’t—but it would have been better with less focus on the schmaltz and more on the characters, warts and all.
Director: Ted Melfi
Writer: Ted Melfi
Starring: Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard
Release Date: Oct. 10 (limited); Oct. 24 (wide)
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.