The Sins of St. Vincent
by Matthew Cabe
How delighted I would’ve been had St. Vincent ended in any way other than what the title suggests. How conflicted I’d feel had the plot not pulled me along so obviously to the big coming together in which every character learns lessons about themselves and each other. I might still be thinking about the film right now, and there might be much-deserved buzz echoing through the packed halls of the internet over Bill Murray’s performance. But, alas, St. Vincent—written and directed by Theodore Melfi—plays out all too predictably.
The story concerns a recently divorced mother played by a tragically absent Melissa McCarthy who, with her angelic son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) in tow, moves next door to a bitter old man (that’s Murray). Due to circumstances that aren’t out of her control, McCarthy’s hospital-employee Maggie can think of no other option than to, on a whim, recruit the cantankerous stranger as her son’s babysitter even though he’s clearly an alcoholic with anger issues. Oliver, who is one of those too-smart-for-his-own-good boys of immense feeling, would be better off babysitting himself, but Maggie is too busy with work and mounting money problems and a custody battle and fighting with Murray’s Vincent to notice.
And so then Vincent takes the boy under his wing, teaches him how break the nose of the Catholic-school bully (Oliver and the bully become post-fight chums), shows him how to play the horses, introduces him to his Russian whore (Naomi Watts), and treats him to dinner at the local dive bar. Oliver, in the shock of the year, blossoms as a result of this street-savvy education. He also teaches Vincent a thing or two about compassion and friendship, and probably some other stuff only a kid in an indie movie could teach an adult who’s already defied great odds by staying alive long enough to be taught despite destructive lifestyle choices.
Two intriguing ingredients will draw audiences to this film: A toned-down Melissa McCarthy and Bill Murray. As for the former, McCarthy’s performance implies that her acting abilities consist of two speeds; she’s either got the pedal to the metal or she’s standing outside a locked car looking through the window at her keys. That’s not to say McCarthy, an alumna of The Groundlings comedy troupe, isn’t talented because she clearly is, and I was excited to see her in a role that doesn’t rely on her signature over-the-top zaniness. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and remain excited for her next dramatic role since the fault of her nonexistence on-screen belongs more to director Melfi’s script than it does to the actress. Along with McCarthy, Terrance Howard is wasted as Murray’s bookie who literally runs out of the story before he’s given a chance to add anything important or memorable.
Bill Murray, on the other hand, keeps the movie afloat—for a short while, anyway. The problem with his character is that Melfi tries to humanize someone who’s already very human. That Vincent is a lonely old man with a reluctance to people apparently wasn’t enough. There was probably a fear that his mean-spirited tirades would turn off audiences. So, included in his back story are military service and weekly visits to his dying wife in a nursing home. These additions are meant to create sympathy (or pity) for Vincent, but the sympathy already exists when he begins to open up to young Oliver. Hamming up the reasons behind his bitterness makes him less complex, less believable. Still, Murray’s performance is admirable, especially in the second half of the movie as things really take a turn for the worse for Vincent.
It’s no spoiler that the movie culminates with an assembly at Oliver’s Catholic school for presentations on saintly people. Melfi bee lines to this climax from the start, and it is sort of heartwarming. But it’s also cheap. In the last thirty minutes, Oliver and Vincent are no longer on speaking terms, but Oliver does extensive research on Vincent’s past in order to paint a saintly picture of him at the assembly. For my money, the film would have achieved a small miracle had it concluded with shots of Vincent sitting alone in his dingy home intercut with Oliver’s speech. There’s something difficult and real and messy in such a calling into question of all the change Vincent experiences up to that point. Instead, Vincent shows up at the school and sees how much he means to Oliver and their little community of misfits. All flaws are tidied up quite neatly and forgiven. A Hollywood ending if there ever was one.