'St. Vincent' review: Murray is brilliant in an enjoyable, if flawed, film
Bill Murray brings to life one of the best film characters of 2014 in an uneven film that starts strong, but disappoints with an underwhelming second half.
In short: A down-on-his-luck hard drinking, womanizing, misanthropic gambling addict (Murray) agrees to babysit the young son (Jaeden Lieberher) of his new neighbor, a recently divorced single mother (Melissa McCarthy). (Watch the trailer)
Murray's performance alone is worth the price of admission. He presents one of the most elementally hilarious film characters of the year -- and he succeeds without delivering a single traditional setup/punchline comedic line. A character as morally bankrupt and socially dysfunctional as Vincent could have easily slipped into irredeemable or disgusting territory - but despite the character's often repugnant actions, Murray manages to keep Vincent a somehow likable, if cranky, old man. Keeping a such a deplorable character somehow very likable is no small feat ... and one "St. Vincent" succeeds in where other similar attempts have failed (ie, "Bad Teacher," "Bad Words," etc).
Murray gives a master class in character-based comedy and playing a truly defined 'character.' His reactions to a seemingly endless series of setbacks is constantly priceless because Murray knows where the comedy in disappointment and spiritual darkness lies. His perfect comedic timing is combined with his ability to mine humanity from some grim dramatic recesses. And Vincent is always Vincent - an adversarial, antisocial and selfish man whose is unrepentant himself through and through. This also makes Vincent a thoroughly genuine man whose inner complexity is shelled in an off-putting and abrasive loser.
Sadly, the rest of "St. Vincent" does not equal Murray's brilliant performance.
Aside from Murray, McCarthy and Lieberher, many of the supporting characters range from (at best) questionably necessary to (at worst) mere plot/premise tools - with the script investing most of the characters in its bizarre, heavy handed premise that tries to present Vincent as a 'saint.' The first half of "St. Vincent" allows the characters to beautifully interact and present their dimensions. The back half of this movie bends over backwards in a tortured attempt to force a 'Vincent is a really good guy' argument in the least graceful or artistic manner possible: with a school presentation.
Vincent is indeed presented as a complex, if seriously flawed, guy with a heart of gold -- but "St. Vincent" takes that sentiment to the n-th degree by itemizing all of Vincent's saintly qualities mostly by listing them off. This is made even more exasperating by the fact that many of his "qualities of sainthood" are entirely rooted in actions or events that happen entirely off screen. While the script and Murray's performance allow that Vincent is capable of his recounted saintly actions, "St. Vincent" decides exposition is the best tool to convey how great a guy Vincent really is.
Whole sections and entire characters of "St. Vincent" could have trimmed or cut entirely to tell a more streamlined story.Naomi Watts plays an aging, pregnant stripper/prostitute (who is, for some reason, Russian) that Vincent hangs around - her character doesn't add much to the overall story. Terrence Howard is wasted in a very minor role, playing a character whose entire storyline completely evaporates at the end of the second act. For a character who presents story/dramatic stakes for Vincent in the first and second act, Howard's character essentially executes one major plot point for Vincent - then he, and his dramatic stakes, just disappear ... never to return.
Not even Vincent himself is protected from some questionable story decisions. At one point, Vincent commits what could be considered a major betrayal -- an act that, while effective in revealing how low he will stoop, yields little to no story or plot consequences. To have the main character take such a pronounced and major action, then never have to deal with direct consequences from another main character is a bit sloppy.
Final verdict: Despite its structural and story flaws, "St. Vincent" is a very enjoyable and likable comedic drama that remains a 'must-see' recommendation purely on the strength of Bill Murray's hilarious performance. In a fair world, Murray will receive plenty of attention come Award Season - his performance is strong enough for any Best Actor nomination.
'St. Vincent' is currently playing in select cities and will expand nationwide Oct. 24 and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language.