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Canonizing Bill Murray

Film Review: "St. Vincent" 

Canonizing Bill Murray

Despite the myriads of changes in taste and fashion, in audience demographics and box office appeal, the film industry still depends heavily on the ancient formulas of high concept and old hat. High concept refers to a simply understood movie idea that can be summed up in a neat phrase or sentence -- "fish out of water" remains one of the most popular, for example, and describes all those old screwball comedies of the 30's as well as works like "Kindergarten Cop," "Doc Hollywood," or "After Hours."  It also applies to the innumerable horror flicks that place a young couple or a group of college students or a TV crew or a rock band or anyone else in some dangerous situation -- a haunted house, a town full of inbred yokels, a family of cannibals, etc. Old hat, however, surely needs no explanation.

"St. Vincent" seems so familiar that it probably deserves both descriptions. The fish out of water concept places a single mother and her young son next door to a grumpy old guy; since we all know how that situation will turn out, it calls for a tip of the old hat. The entertainment part of the picture naturally involves all the stuff that happens in between the encounter of the two disparate entities and how it all turns out.

Bill Murray plays Vincent MacKenna, an aging Vietnam veteran living in a modest neighborhood in Brooklyn, who spends his days drinking and betting on the horses and his nights having sex with Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian stripper/hooker. The early sequences show Vincent facing total financial ruin -- he's spent all the money from a reverse mortgage; he's overdrawn his meager bank account; and he owes his bookie (Terrence Howard) a considerable sum. 

Everything goes sour after that: when he drives home in his customary state of inebriation, Vincent backs over his picket fence and knocks down his mailbox. Then his new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) arrives, and her movers promptly knock a limb off his tree and damage his car, another Hollywood high concept -- meeting cute.

Through a series of events too tedious to recount, Vincent falls into the task of babysitting for Maggie's young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). In a predictable fashion, the cynical, irascible old man reluctantly becomes something of a mentor to the boy.  He teaches him how to defend himself against the bullies in his new school, takes him to the racetrack in order to improve his math skills, and introduces him to his stripper friend Daka.

In addition to all of Vincent's comic behaviors and funny lines, he reveals another side of himself and a tacit explanation for his financial woes. He takes Oliver on a visit to a nursing home, where his wife Sandy (Donna Mitchell) resides, apparently a victim of Alzheimer's disease. The gentleness and caring of course show that the angry, bitter old coot possesses a modicum of sensitivity and kindness.

Although a number of other problems clog up the simple essential plot of the picture, it really resolves itself into the relationship between the old man and the young boy. That subject concludes the various actions with the patness and sentimentality that characterizes uninspired movie comedy. The climax reaches a pinnacle of ersatz emotion guaranteed to touch even the hardest heart.

Despite the predictable nature of "St. Vincent," the cast works efficiently to make this shallow, harmless little movie succeed on its own limited terms. The script provides the supporting actors, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts, with significant parts and some credible dialogue -- Daka in fact matches Vincent in anger and nastiness.

Bill Murray, of course, carries the whole weight of the picture with great success.  His casual, offhand, arrhythmic style fits the character of Vincent McKenna perfectly; like it or not, he makes a good drunk, even without the realities of such alcoholic behavior as vomiting, unconsciousness, and delirium tremens. The real find, however, is young Jaeden Lieberher, who entirely lacks the obnoxious narcissism of most child actors, projecting a winning combination of vulnerability and simple humanity; he must perform as Bill Murray's straight man, and succeeds admirably. He and Murray provide the real value in this otherwise trivial flick.

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