Movie Review: St. Vincent (2014)
Theodore Melfi’s debut feature, “St. Vincent,” is like the “Me and Julio” scene from “Royal Tenenbaums” for an entire movie. It’s a curmudgeon, Vincent (Bill Murray), teaching a polite kid, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher, a real find), how to, in Royal’s phrase, take it out and chop it up.
Vincent takes Oliver to the racetrack and a bar. He hangs out with a lady of the evening, Daka (Naomi Watts), who’s hot and Russian and pregnant. He teaches Oliver, who’s being picked on at school, how to fight. He feeds him sardines and calls it sushi, they tool around in Vincent’s 1983 wood-paneled Chrysler LeBaron convertible, and after they win the Trifecta at the racetrack they celebrate with ice cream cones, wearing matching gangster bandanas and listening in slow-mo to a song from Bronze Radio Return on the soundtrack.
Basically it’s an idealized portrait of a kid (who has a big heart and a curiosity for the world), and a dyspeptic portrait of an adult (who has a bitter heart and just wants to be left alone), but it works. It’s charming. I laughed a lot.
Make no mistake, though: it’s the kid who makes the movie. Murray’s been getting a lot of attention but it’s the kid, Jaeden Lieberher, who gets my laughs.
This exchange for example (1:11 in the trailer). It’s just before Vincent, with a cigarette in one hand and a stiff drink in the other, tries to teach the kid how to defend himself:
Oliver: I’m small, if you haven’t noticed.
Murray: So was Hitler.
Oliver: [pause, realization] That’s a horrible comparison.
The Hitler line is absurd, so it’s Oliver’s genuine reaction to it that’s funny. See also: “She works at night” in the trailer. There’s a genuineness to Liberher acting that makes it work. He’s got to seem like a kid and he does.
He also gives us one of the best prayers I’ve ever heard.
Oliver and his mom, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, underplaying), arrive in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, after she finds her husband sleeping with everyone in town, and while she works days (and some nights) as a nurse at a hospital, he attends St. Patrick’s Elementary School. She wants him to get a quality education. But on the first day, the teacher, Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd, a standout in a small role), asks him to lead the class in prayer. Oliver, in a straightforward small voice: “I think I’m Jewish.” But this is 2014, the school is diverse—that one’s Muslim, she’s agnostic, he’s Hindu—and so Oliver has to do it anyway. He bows his head:
That’s my new prayer.
Because Maggie’s busy—she’s also being sued by her ex for joint custody—she pays Vincent $12 an hour to watch the kid. “Watching” means the above—the taking it out and chopping it up. Also sitting in Vincent’s dirty, cramped house and watching old TV. I was depressed by Vincent’s shows—reminiscent of Schmidt watching awful late-1960s Bob Hope comedies in “About Schmidt”—but then Oliver starts giggling along to Abbott and Costello, and that redeemed it all. “Are they old?” he asks. “No, they’re dead,” Vincent answers. “That’s as old as you can be.”
Critics have accused Murray of playing cute here but Vincent is pretty much an asshole. Sure, he is going broke because he keeps his wife, suffering from dementia, in a high-end assisted living facility and does her laundry on weekends. But that’s his one redeeming quality. He owes the assisted care facility, he owes a bookie, he owes the bar, he owes Daka. When the assisted care facility demands its money, Vincent takes Oliver’s Trifecta winnings, $2700, and blows it on another Trifecta. He never pays it back. He’s never even referenced again.
But he has his luck. Or “luck.” When the bookie (a rumpled Terrence Howard) is about to hurt him, he has a stroke. As his wife is about to be moved to a worse facility, she dies.
Yes, thank you
So why the title? Because during Brother Geraghty’s discussion of saints, he gives the class an assignment to research and write about a modern-day person who may or may not qualify for sainthood. Oliver chooses Vincent, even though the “chopping it up,” photographed by a private dick, has led to joint custody with Oliver’s dad, David—who, in a nice touch, turns out to be a bland, bald, seemingly sympathetic dude (Scott Adsit). Oliver researches well. He finds info and photos. He tells the assembly that Vincent was born in Sheepshead Bay in 1946, grew up on its tough streets, went to Vietnam, saved the lives of many men. He cared for his wife in her senescence. He taught Oliver how to fight.
The lesson is really the lesson of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: that everyone’s life is remarkable when you look deeply enough. Also the lesson of “To Kill a Mockingbird”: You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around a little.
Even so, Vincent’s hardly a saint. The kid, though? Sure. The kid’s too good to be true.