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Theodore Melfi’s road to producing his breakout feature, St. Vincent is almost as captivating as the movie itself. With a strong cast and quick dialogue, St. Vincent is a heartfelt comedy that explores the many relationships humans have with each other.
Vincent (Bill Murray) is a low-down drunk, whose sharp tongue and lack of interpersonal skills leave him mostly alone. Spending his days at the bar, or down at the horse races, Vincent is completely out of luck. When Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son, Oliver (a breakout performance by Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, the hard-up Vincent sees an opportunity to make some extra money. Watching Oliver after school while his mother is hard at work, Vincent acts as a combination mentor/philosopher/motivational speaker to the young boy. Using some very unconventional means to help Oliver come out of his shell, and gain the respect of his classmates, Vincent also seems to be benefiting equally from the unusual relationship. Through their ups and downs (there are plenty, and they are predictable), the two “men” discover more about themselves than they ever thought possible.
Melfi, along with directing, wrote the screenplay and fills it with enough fresh humor and emotion to elevate the picture from its made-for-TV premise. After working tirelessly to obtain the services of Bill Murray, Melfi does not waste the comedic actor’s immense talents. Anecdotally responsible for minor re-writes, Murray adds his own unique charm and dry wit to both Vincent, and the film as a whole. Oddly charming, yet acerbic and sarcastic, Murray’s Vincent is strangely compelling to both viewers, and the other characters in Melfi’s world. While there are certainly some unexpected twists, the rest of the film plays much like any other independent comedy, with a color-by-numbers narrative structure that leaves much to be desired, and little to the imagination.
Melfi’s direction is more than competent, if not slightly boring, and helps control the pacing throughout. With shot compositions reminiscent of Wes Anderson (even a wheelchair race scene straight out of Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums), and some interesting framing, Melfi knows how to control the mood of every scene. Using a profile shot of Vincent’s face as he drives, Melfi can control the audience’s perception of the man as his expressions are unflinching, and they are held at arms length (much like his treatment of many other characters) to watch the drama unfold. However, for each of Melfi’s original shots, there is the addition of unnecessary expositional or clichéd ones. A classic scene, wherein the younger character (Oliver in this case) is being picked on while the mentor (Vincent) looks on hoping for a “breakthrough” moment of self-confidence, is haphazardly thrown in as a means to show Vincent’s value in the relationship.
St. Vincent‘s strongest attribute is the strong chemistry between Leiberher and Murray. Very much along the same lines as Murray’s similar character in Rushmore, the two are on a much more equal footing than characters of their disparate ages may suggest. While the audience is made to believe Vincent is in “it” solely for the money, we quickly learn, through minor exposition, that he is also benefitting from the relationship as his life slowly regains equilibrium. Lieberher is fabulous in his first feature, and is never outmatched by the much more seasoned and improvisational Murray. At eleven-years-old, Lieberher is fantastically talented, and brings the perfect mix of innocence and crassness to the part of Oliver. His excitement to learn from the street-smart Vincent is clearly apparent, as is his refusal to take any gruff from the miserly old man. Murray is outstanding as always, and brings a bizarrely-tuned Bostonian accent to the Brooklyn-based Vincent. Naomi Watts takes a page out of Murray’s SNL days, sporting a comedically-Russian accent that is a clear copy of the one made famous by Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin.
While St. Vincent is mostly standard fare, strong chemistry between the young Jaeden Lieberher and Bill Murray packs a strong emotional punch, making the film a very enjoyable, and uncommonly funny drama.