Past the Popcorn: Bill Murray a Treasure in St. Vincent

by Jeff Walls

Bill Murray has been one of our most loved actors for over thirty years now.  He’s starred in many a classic comedy and even earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.  Lately, his roles seem to fall into three distinct categories: Wes Anderson character parts, cameos (think Zombieland), and parts designed towards earning him an Oscar, like last year’s Hyde Park on the Hudson.  His latest movie, St. Vincent, seems to fall in the latter category.

Murray plays Vincent, a crotchety old man who is a compulsive gambler and drinker.  He’s in debt up to his ears and so when his new neighbor needs someone to watch her son after school while she’s still at work, Vincent offers up his services… for twelve dollars an hour.  As you might expect, Vincent becomes a reluctant mentor to the young boy.  He teaches him how to stand up for himself and shows him the ropes at the local racetrack.

st-vincent-insetBy spending so much time with him, the young boy, Oliver, gets a deeper view of Vincent than most and starts to see that he’s actually a decent man.  He’s a war hero; he goes out of his way to take care of his wife, even though she no longer remembers him; and he feeds his cat gourmet food even while he is snacking on canned anchovies.  In short, Vincent makes sacrifices for those closest to him.  So when Oliver’s Catholic school asks him to nominate someone he knows for sainthood, Oliver knows just who he is going to choose.

The plot has been similarly done before and with the exception of one somewhat unexpected turn in the middle of the film, there are not too many surprises.  But plot is not the true selling point of St. Vincent.  What makes St. Vincent worth seeing is its star, who once again turns in an excellent performance.

Murray slips into a heavy Brooklyn accent for the role and plays a little more mean-spirited than we might be used to seeing him, but he’s still as enjoyable as ever.  He wins us over right off the bat with the telling of a humorous joke and then spends the rest of the movie sharing a character with us that we cannot help but love, despite his flaws.  He also gets a chance to do some more dramatic acting in the middle of the film, but not without losing his sense of humor.  Perhaps his best moments come when visiting his wife in a nursing home.  In these scenes, Murray can’t help but give away Vincent’s soft and caring side in his eyes.  The moment where he thinks his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife might remember him is truly heartbreaking.

The supporting cast is also good.  Melissa McCarthy is the straight-woman for a change as Vincent’s neighbor and Oliver’s mother.  Chris O’Dowd is always funny and Naomi Watts also puts on an accent as Vincent’s pregnant stripper girlfriend.  Newcomer Jaeden Lieberher plays Oliver and does a pretty good job as another one of those movie kids who seems to act about ten years older than he is.  His scenes with Murray are the best parts of the movie, whether they are dancing in a bar, mowing Vincent’s non-existent grass, or learning how to fight back against bullies.

The acting makes this movie worth seeing, but as good as Murray is, it is very unlikely that this will be the role that brings him up on stage on Oscar night.  The movie’s plot is just too familiar and the character not quite out-there enough.  That shouldn’t stop you from seeing and enjoying this movie, however, as it is quite enjoyable.

St. Vincent opens today at the Regal Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle… nothing local! Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again?

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