In preparation for my upcoming voting in the AAFCA awards, I decided to catch up on a number of indies I missed earlier in the year. This past weekend in particular was like a private film festival for me, as I watched a total of 6 films, which included genre hits ("The Guest"), arthouse faves ("Only Lovers Left Alive") and topical dramas ("Black or White"). Yet out of all these, the one that I liked the most was the decidedly mainstream comedy "St. Vincent".
"St. Vincent" is a story about an old man named Vincent and a little boy named Oliver. St. Vincent (played by Bill Murray) is a grumpy old war veteran who lives alone and enjoys all manner of debauchery (drinking, gambling and prostitution). Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) on the other hand, is as sweet as they come, a frail kid who gets bullied at school. One day, these different individuals are brought together when Oliver and his mom Maggie (played by Melissa McCarthy) move in to the house next door to Vincent's. As a single parent working long hours to provide for her family, Maggie needs someone to help watch over Oliver after school. In desperation, she therefore turns to the reluctant Vincent to offer him the job. As expected, he's initially annoyed by the prospect, but he needs the money to maintain his lifestyle. The relationship is therefore strictly business, until the two open up to each other and strike up a friendship over the course of the film.
As you can see, "St. Vincent" isn't anything you haven't seen before. Just a few weeks ago I lamented the lack of originality in "The Nightingale", another film that hinges on a burgeoning friendship that bridges a generational gap. So what was so special about this one that made me respond to it so well?
For me, comedies live and die by their performances. If the actors are feeling it, then I'll feel it to. Such is the case in "St. Vincent" and its delightful ensemble. It has Naomi Watts in a bawdy - and largely inconsequential - role as a pregnant (for Vincent, no less) Russian stripper/prostitute. Then you have Melissa McCarthy giving perhaps her best dramatic performance. There's also Jaden Lieberher's adorable debut, showing good comic timing. Finally, there's the highly amusing Bill Murray as this obnoxious curmudgeon. It's thanks to them that the film is so enjoyable, especially when it comes to the chemistry between Murray and Lieberher.
Of course, I could easily dissect some of the script's nagging choices. For example, there's the typical "the things we learned" ending that's blatantly manipulative. Admittedly, the reveal of the meaning behind the film's title did get me teary-eyed, but it's emblematic of a film unwilling to embrace the full potential of its mean-spirited central character. Indeed, a better film could have been made if there wasn't the obligatory sentimental backstory to redeem him. It would have been less universally agreeable but so much more outstanding.
"St. Vincent" is a comedy that isn't especially funny or moving, but it's commendably effective within its PG-13 constraints. It made me laugh and it made me cry. This year I've become increasingly receptive of more challenging works in my cinephile diet, but I'll always have a place for these familiar comforts.