Murray, McCarthy transcend personas in St. Vincent

Who would have thought that the TV sketch performer who epitomized a cool, detached and self-aware comedy style nearly 40 years ago would turn out to be such an immersive actor? I’m talking, of course, about Bill Murray, who became a star on Saturday Night Live as Nick, the winking lounge singer, and later slyly included the audience in his antics in such classic comedies as Meatballs, Stripes and Caddyshack.

These days, as evidenced by his latest performance in St. Vincent, Murray has evolved into an actor who can sublimate his gonzo personality into a character study that is nuanced and convincing.

Melissa McCarthy plays Jaeden Lieberher's mother, while Naomi Watts is a Russian prostitute in St. Vincent. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima)

Melissa McCarthy plays Jaeden Lieberher’s mother, while Naomi Watts is a Russian prostitute in St. Vincent. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima)

Murray plays Vincent “Vin” McKenna, a solitary barfly and misanthrope who accidently ends up as a daily babysitter for his new neighbor’s (Melissa McCarthy) precocious bully-magnet son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Vin introduces the boy to his colorful but complicated world of racetracks, barrooms and nursing homes. This unconventional mentorship teaches Oliver a lot about a hardscrabble way of life, but it also endangers Oliver’s mother’s custody of the boy.

Within the universe of the movie, Vin and Oliver’s relationship is genuine and mutually beneficial, if a bit difficult to explain to authorities at schools and divorce courts. One of the strengths of St. Vincent is that, like the audience, Oliver clearly sees Vin’s abundance of flaws, yet still likes and admires him. This is because Murray gives a subtle, layered performance that creates a character with a multitude of off-putting traits who is ultimately likable. The viewer forgets that this is Bill Murray, one of the most familiar faces and personas in Hollywood.

In a similarly effective way, Melissa McCarthy dials down her usually strong and offbeat comedic style to play single-mom neighbor Maggie as a plausibly real person. The solid cast is rounded out with quirky performances from Naomi Watts (as a pregnant Russian prostitute!), Chris O’Dowd and Terrence Howard.

As interesting, unique and relatable as the main characters are, the movie suffers from sloppy plotting and far-fetched transitions from Director-Screenwriter Theodore Melfi (in his feature film debut). Perhaps it can be attributed to his inexperience, but St. Vincent never truly transcends the sentimental, even manipulative weaknesses of Melfi’s script.
Set in the working-class, immigrant-heavy neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, St. Vincent has the look of gritty realism. The streets, bars and racetracks become another character in a rich but careworn backdrop for the story.

In the end, the movie doesn’t really hold together, but it’s still worth the time for these fascinatingly flawed and credible characters.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.