Review by-Jarrett Leahy
When Maggie, a recent divorcee, and her 12-year-old son, Oliver, move in next door to Vincent, a drunkard war veteran with a propensity for betting on the horses, Vincent’s inebriated existence gets thrown for a loop. Unaware of Vincent’s proclivity for life’s questionable comforts and desperate for babysitting help, Maggie agrees to pay Vincent to watch Oliver after school while she’s at work. As this unlikely companionship between Vincent and Oliver flourishes, each helps the other discover life’s finer pleasures while traversing through some of life’s more difficult moments.
Successful directorial debuts have always held an extra level of intrigue and acclaim, as creating an entertaining movie is hard enough for veteran filmmakers let alone for an artist who is attempting one for the first time. Learning after the fact that St. Vincent is the feature debut of writer/director Theodore Melfi was the cherry on top of an already charming sundae. A longtime producer, Melfi’s film is the type of movie that some critics have been lukewarm in their praise of, due in large part to a script that, some feel, is wrought with an overabundance of conventional indie narrative elements. Critics like to condescendingly call movies like St. Vincent “fan favorites.” While I will concede St. Vincent’s story has a feeling of familiarity, it’s delivered with such hilarity and sincere charisma by all involved that you can’t help but walk out of the theater smiling.
A celebrated comedian who has flawlessly grown and transformed over his forty year career, Bill Murrray is still one of this generation’s underrated performers in terms of just how gifted an overall actor he is. Playing the film’s title character, Murray delivers yet another noteworthy portrayal in a career replete with them. Right from the film’s opening moments, Murray’s ornery elocution is delivered with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, as if revealing the slightest glimpse of a gentler disposition long since buried over time. Titling the film St. Vincent is an amusing paradox, for rarely would an antisocial alcoholic who retains a “friendship” with a pregnant Russian exotic dancer be anyone’s first choice for sainthood. However, contrary to what the character would want everyone to believe, this cantankerous drunken misanthrope is not all bluster and foul language, and as his relationship with young Oliver grows, we discover a myriad of unexpected surprises about Vincent delivered to perfection by Murray. Comedic roles like this tend to receive early praise yet get overlooked come Oscar time, but it’s my sincere hope this year will prove differently.
Murray’s onscreen partner in crime, Jaeden Lieberher, is undoubtedly St. Vincent’s breakout star. For many child actors, we tend to cut them some slack due to their obvious lack the experience and expertise. This is not the case with Lieberher. A composed and confident young man who is mature well beyond his years, Lieberher’s elocution and grasp of comedic timing is even more impressive when considering St. Vincent is his film debut. Perfectly cast to portray the scrawny, precocious preteen Oliver, Lieberher captures the discomfiture that comes from being the new kid in school without ever eliciting feelings of pity. While onscreen together, Lieberher and Murray make a truly delightful partnership thanks in large part to Lieberer, who not only holds his own with this screen legend, but delivers his own side-splitting one-liners and amusing moments of acumen.
As essential as Murray and Lieberher’s onscreen chemistry was to the success of the film, the glue that binds St. Vincent together comes from film’s two supporting female performances. A comedienne known more for portraying brash, foul-mouthed characters, Melissa McCarthy has been a performer I’ve been an admitted skeptic of these last few years. With that in mind, I can humbly declare being pleasantly surprised by her loving and warmhearted portrayal of Oliver’s mother Maggie. Offered with just the right touch of subtle and understated humor, I now have a McCarthy performance I can applaud. In contrast, Naomi Watts’ exaggerated portrayal of Russian exotic dancer Daka is anything but subtle. Amusingly over-the-top and completely against type, Watts goes all out, fully embracing the absurdity of her character to priceless results.
Like a favorite pair of well-worn shoes, St. Vincent is a comfortable and satisfying story with a multitude of charmingly familiar moments which, left in the hands of lesser talent, would most likely come off as hokey and cliched. Instead, the on-screen pairing of Murray and Lieberher helps create a mischievous coming-of-age comedy enhanced by a smattering of truly affecting narrative curveballs that offer a more emotionally profound experience than one would expect based on the film’s trailer. Some may find the St. Vincent’s ending a bit too sentimental, but for me, Melfi’s affectionate culmination added true heart to his irreverently amusing comedy. When your directorial debut winds up being one of the best comedies of 2014, Theodore Melfi has certainly set the bar of expectation pretty high for his next effort.-JL