Murray shines in cliched, but touching ‘St. Vincent’

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Murray shines in cliched, but touching ‘St. Vincent’

By Dylan Galper / For The Pitt News

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“St. Vincent”

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

Starring: Bill Murray, Naomi Watts, Melissa McCarthy

Grade: B

In his review of Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film “Broken Flowers,” Roger Ebert wrote, “No actor is better than Bill Murray at doing nothing at all and being fascinating while not doing it.”  

While this may be true of Murray’s entire career, it’s especially true of his late-career, independent projects. Well before the early 2000s, Murray had already perfected the role of the slacker, the nihilist who stalks his way through films with a delightfully boorish attitude.

But it wasn’t until films like “Broken Flowers,” “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation” — for which he earned his first and only Oscar nomination — that Murray realized the true potential of his creation, transforming those lovable, but off-putting, goofballs into something more significant, more despondent. He’s an actor who can convey more meaning in a line or a stare than most actors can in 40 lines.

In “St. Vincent,” Murray finds a happy medium between the two styles (think more “Groundhog Day” than “Lost in Translation”), yet he’s as effective as ever. Donning a thick New York accent, he plays Vincent, a down-and-out Brooklynite who drinks, smokes, plays the horses and owes money to seemingly everyone in town. “Cluttered” would be a generous way to describe his filthy Brooklyn home, which is surrounded by an unkempt patch of dirt. His wardrobe appears as if it’s been lifted entirely from a teenager’s closet, and his only meaningful relationships are between himself, his cat and his “lady of the night,” Daka (a marvelous Naomi Watts), who pays him weekly visits.

That is until Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) and his mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) move in next door in her attempt to flee Oliver’s cheating father. Maggie works constantly, leaving Oliver pretty much on his own. After a rough first day at his new school, he reluctantly turns to Vincent for help after he misplaces his house key. Vincent, capitalizing on a perfect opportunity to earn much-needed cash, offers to watch Vincent for a few hours after school each day.

Vincent is certainly no character to admire, but Oliver, desperate for a father figure, takes to him, and Vincent, perhaps looking for more than just a paycheck, begins to enjoy his mentoring role. He teaches Oliver everything he knows, which consists mostly of fighting and gambling, and, along the way, we learn more and more about the tender soul behind the rocky facade.

If this sounds familiar and formulaic, you’re probably right. The story itself is rather clichéd, but the actors’ performances manage to pull out something greater than their stock characters should allow. Watts is terrific as a pregnant, Russian prostitute, and McCarthy gives as straight and touching a performance as she’s ever given as the hard-working, single mother struggling to pay the bills and provide her son with a private school education. Lieberher is fantastic as the shy 12-year-old, and his chemistry with Murray is as good as it gets.

But the real star of the show is Murray. Too often in the film does Vincent verge toward the territory of unlikable, but Murray keeps him from ever reaching that point. He grounds Vincent in a rough but relatable space, without making him overly optimistic. It’s a thin line, but no one walks it better than Murray, whose performance and history of playing snobbish, but good-hearted, characters allows us to view his harsh demeanor with a grain of salt.  

The movie, like its title character, may have a few rough edges, but it has a heart of gold and gives credence to the idiom that we should never judge a book by its cover.

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