You know you have star power when an entire theater sits through the end credits just to watch you water a potted plant. Such is our national obsession with Bill Murray. Whether it’s a raised eyebrow or an awkward pause, you’re just waiting for him to do something funny. Sadly, St. Vincent keeps you waiting for most of its running time. This watered-down Bad Santa is too busy being a benign crowd pleaser to deliver much of a kick.
Vincent (Murray) is the ball of hate that lives next door. He curses at passersby in the street, and his only friends are a cat and a pregnant exotic dancer with an outrageous Russian accent. Even his house looks like an ancient, yellowing cigarette butt. But he’s also got his soft spots. Like continuing to visit his wife in the nursing home, long after the Alzheimer’s has deleted him from her memory banks. Or taking care of the little boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who just moved next door. Of course, it’s only fair that Vincent gouge his mother (Melissa McCarthy) for babysitting fees. He may be a drunk, degenerate gambler, but he also cares, dammit!
Writer-director, Theodore Melfi, does a passable job keeping Vincent irascible for as long as possible. Though he never truly turns soft and mushy, he also warms to young Oliver (Lieberher) a bit too quickly. In fact, Melfi’s biggest mistake is not making Vincent meaner and edgier. Having a wildly popular actor like Murray is like having a blank check for unlimited bile. Instead, the confines of the PG-13 rating require a toothless affair that’s short on audacity and long on sentimentality.
Melfi’s script, too, struggles to find a consistent tone. When Vincent appears ready to finally take the plunge into disrepute, we learn another heartwarming tidbit that distracts from the fun. This is meant to function as character development, of course, but it only serves to undermine the laughs. It’s fun to watch a bad guy being a jerk on his way to redemption; not so much to watch a closeted good guy being a jerk out of his own twisted bitterness. Without more attention paid to Vincent’s inner demons, it feels like nothing more than a transparent attempt to squeeze a few tears from the audience.
It might seem unfair to compare St. Vincent to Bad Santa, but the comparison is almost inescapable. Scenes are even duplicated between the two movies, such as Vincent teaching Oliver how to fight some persistent bullies. It’s when you directly compare the two films that St. Vincent’s uneven tone and milquetoast storyline raise their lackluster heads. Hell, Murray’s character in Scrooged had more of an edge than Vincent does!
The one bright spot is the chemistry between Murray and Lieberher. For such a young performer, Lieberher has uncanny comic timing, and more than holds his own with heavyweights like Murray and McCarthy. The film’s biggest laughs come from his pitch-perfect delivery. He’s innocent enough to make you blush when he says, “boobs,” and worldly enough to turn a simple phrase like “Lady of the night” into a crushing punchline.
The rest of the cast represents nicely, though they have precious little to do. Horrible accent aside, Watts’ pregnant stripper is the one original creation in the entire film, and she adds a risqué element that is sorely lacking. Chris O’Dowd also has some great moments as the progressive priest we all wish really existed. McCarthy gets one juicy scene to show off her dramatic chops, as she lays out the chronology of her tragic life, but her comedic presence is sorely lacking. She’s reduced to a playing a punching bag for Murray when she could have been a formidable adversary.
Ultimately, St. Vincent is a thoroughly forgettable effort in the otherwise impressive canon of Bill Murray. Even worse, he feels flat here, like he isn’t exactly sure how far he can take this marginally-offensive character. And still… you keep waiting for him to do something funny. It’s too bad that Murray is largely wasted in a movie that doesn’t seem to understand the sparkle of its brightest star.