Diehard Bill Murray fans have long been hoping their idol would find the elusive role that would earn him that richly deserved Oscar. Ever since he was overlooked for Lost in Translation, ceding the award to the histrionics of Sean Penn in Mystic River, Murray’s devotees have been praying he did not miss his last, best shot at recognition for his unique set of talents. With each new Murray role that is announced, they wonder “Is this it? Is this the one?”
Alas, St. Vincent is not the answer to their prayers. In fact, it is considerably less than that.
Murray consults a dogeared copy of the manual on Irascible Jerks With a Heart of Gold in this story of a grouchy New Yorker and his prepubescent neighbour, who help each other grow into the people they need to become. Vincent McKenna (Murray) gets a rude introduction to his new neighbours, a single mother (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son (Jaeden Lieberher), when her movers knock a tree branch onto his car. Little do they realize, Vincent has actually destroyed his own fence and car while executing a drunken parking job the night before. He capitalizes on the opportunity to scheme the woman out of some money, which he direly needs, as he’s in debt to bookies, and has a beatdown looming should he fail to cough up some dough. As the ice thaws between them, though, Vincent volunteers to watch the kid after school – for a hefty hourly fee – since his mother is often working late on her nursing shifts. Unfortunately, Vincent’s idea of babysitting involves going to the racetrack and taking young Oliver to bars – though it turns out he may have a much more saintly need for that money than he’s letting on.
The problem with Murray’s irascible jerk with a heart of gold is this: The ways he’s a jerk and the ways he has a heart of gold both ring false. As we learn more about him, we see the disconnect between the guy he was and the guy he has turned out to be. He really was a decent guy, possibly a hero, but the scumbug he’s turned into – even though he may be a cuddly scumbug – is not a logical psychological offshoot of that earlier person. Part of this has to do with one of the movie’s strengths, which is the wicked Brooklyn accent Murray seems to have mastered. It’s such a working class triumph that it makes his character feel like a real lifer, a guy who has been existing around the margins for years and has always been a morally questionable character. That the earlier version of himself would become embittered into this version of himself never has the whiff of truth, and it’s hard to believe that either version would be married to the character who is ultimately revealed as his wife.
The one scene that really does feel honest belongs to an actress who is usually the most outsized personality on screen. As Oliver’s emotionally overtaxed mother, McCarthy delivers a speech to the boy’s Catholic school teachers that really gets at how hard her separation from her husband has been, and its effects on her son and herself. That this scene of genuine human emotion bursts out from all the daffy eccentricity makes it all the more striking.
Daffy eccentricity? How about the movie’s most unfortunate character, the pregnant Russian stripper prostitute played by Naomi Watts? Just as unsurprisingly, she also has a heart of gold, but her character gets lost in Watts’ sub-Saturday Night Live Russian accent. Watts is of course a very talented actress, but she really stiffens under the direction of neophyte Theodore Melfi, also the film’s screenwriter.
The charming story of Melfi wooing Murray to this project, which came together over many months of sporadic and unpredictable contact from Murray, made one hope that a lot more could have come of their collaboration than this disappointing indie dramedy with very sappy tendencies.