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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 24 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 43
Bill Murray is a complex powerhouse in obdurate St. Vincent
Arts & Entertainment
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Bill Murray is a complex powerhouse in obdurate St. Vincent

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

I'm not sure writer/director Theodore Melfi's debut narrative feature St. Vincent could be any more entertaining if it tried. Alive, strikingly unsentimental, yet affectingly emotional, the film is a colorfully eccentric character study of an unapologetic man refusing to bow to conventionality who doesn't care a lick what others think of him. At the same time, this seemingly lonely man, a hermit by all appearances, is just as guilty of judging others with just as biased a point-of-view as those sizing him up have done for many years now. He's an odd focal point to wrap an entire feature film around, and as such Melfi risks alienating his audience before they even have a chance to realize what's going on and where everything is headed towards.

This isn't a good thing, it's a great one, the film an energizing dramatic saga that doesn't so much break new ground as it does exactly what it sets out to do very, very well. More, it offers up a stupendous, award-worthy central performance from Bill Murray, the comedic superstar reminding us all once again just how dynamic and multifaceted an actor he truly is.

Murray is Vincent, a curmudgeonly Vietnam vet who ends up striking up a relationship with his new next door neighbor Maggie's (Melissa McCarthy) 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) even though he'd really rather not deal with any of this. Yet as time passes the two develop an odd duck relationship of sorts, and while some of their give and take travels down a familiar path, numerous aspects of it surprisingly end up being anything but. While these two do change the other in some ways, overall Vincent stubbornly stays true to who he is while Oliver doesn't suddenly blossom into anything more than what he already appears. Each stays true to their core essences, which is more complex and multidimensional than initially appears, so even when melodramatic excess seeps into the proceedings it doesn't hurt the overall tenner or arc of the film in any overly discernible way.

But there are issues. Subplots involving Vincent's bookie Zucko (Terrence Howard) and his pregnant Russian stripper girlfriend Daka (NaomiWatts) come perilously close to overplaying their collective hands, the latter additionally hampered by a mannered and hammy performance from Watts that's undeniably distracting. Both of these tangents don't have the electrifying emotional grace or subtle simplicity as the core elements of the narrative do, and as such they can't help but standout in ways both frustrating and unsatisfying.

Yet this movie ends up being something close to amazing all the same. It all hinges on a final act where Oliver must talk about Vincent in exacting detail, give a school speech where he explains just how great this man is without sugarcoating his more reprehensible and risible traits. It's a fine line, Lieberher knocking out of the park while Melfi's delicately balanced script brings it all together with remarkable eloquence. It's handled with exquisite, tenderly complex grace, these final moments speaking to exactly the themes the filmmaker has been presenting from the start yet doing so in a way that feels unforced and natural.

Then there is Murray. The actor, an Oscar nod for Lost in Translation aside, has always been an underrated talent, doing more with less on more occasions than I can count. He's as stupendous here as he has ever been, giving depth and shading to Vincent that the script happily allows him to cultivate and grow on his own without any extraneous input on its part. He sells every aspect of this journey, even the ones drowning in melodramatic cliché, reveling in every aspect of his character's being, refusing to mellow out his mean steak or soften his rougher edges, when a lesser actor would have done just that in order to try to engender audience sympathies to an even higher degree.

For me, there is a single moment in the motion picture where I knew I was in love. Vincent has been visiting someone for quite some time, putting on an act for her, pretending to be a doctor who pops in now and again to her care facility for impromptu checkups. During one of these visits something happens, a brief spark of electricity that takes place over the course of seconds, but in many ways means the world to at least one of the characters involved. A lesser movie would have drowned this scene in treacle. An unconfident director would have lapsed on the sentiment and told their composer to intensify every facial tick and teardrop just in case the audience wasn't keeping track.

Melfi does not do this. He allows the strength, breadth and majesty of Murray's performance to do the work for him, thus letting this brief snapshot of a life we know little about to crystalize in front of our eyes without any additional, and unnecessary, augmentation. St. Vincent might not be without problems, it might not have all its ducks in a row, but even the ugly ones end up growing into swans, the movie proving that looks aren't everything, and messy, judgmental and rude can sometimes be just as beautiful as good manners and genteel civility.

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