St. Vincent (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

It begins with Vincent McKenna (Bill Murray) drunkenly telling a joke in a bar – a locale which, along with his seen-better-days Brooklyn house, the Belmont Park race course, and the palatial Sunningvale care home – forms Vincent’s typical environment. It ends, as the closing credits roll, with Vincent sitting in his garden, watering a dead-looking plant rooted in a pot alongside a miniature American flag. Between these limits, we get a complex portrait of youthful hopes and dashed dreams, of old America and new, of death and the possibility of rebirth.

The feature debut of writer/director Theodore Melfi, St. Vincent charts the relationship that develops between grouchy old retiree Vincent, and 12-year-old Oliver (Jaeden Liberher) who has just moved into the rental next door with his divorced and overworked mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy). “You don’t know anything about me!” Vincent will protest to Maggie when she complains about his conduct – and the truth is that if she realised he was an alcoholic, a gambler and a whorer (whose main squeeze is Naomi Watts’ pregnant Russian stripper cum ‘lady of the night’ Daka), she would be unlikely to entrust her son to Vincent’s care every day after school.

Yet there are other things Oliver and Martha do not know about Vincent – details from his past and aspects of his present – that reveal this misanthropic curmudgeon also to be loyal, brave and caring. As neglected as his house, and as damaged as the tree out front, Vincent is also, like these, still standing – and under his protection, shy, bullied Oliver will start to grow up and find his own feet.

Vincent is a rôle made (and, as it happens, written) for Murray, who has been honing his lovable grump for decades now, and who always manages to locate that sweet spot of sadness in his everyday clowns. Melfi proves adept at negotiating the no man’s land between comedy and drama, while offering a refreshing alternative to the bourgeois values so often celebrated in American cinema. The white picket fence – that great signifier of suburban aspiration – that we see outside Vincent’s house near the beginning of the film will immediately be crushed under the drunkenly reversing wheels of Vincent’s old Chrysler, and then repeatedly run over on every subsequent occasion that Vincent returns home, underlining the notion that St Vincent is set in an era when the middle-class dream home has been steamrollered by recession.

Vincent’s frustrating altercations with bankers, bookies, bureaucrats and barmen all show a one-time war hero who has lost most of his standing if none of his fight. The sacrifices that he makes to ensure that his dementia-afflicted wife gets care beyond his diminishing means finds its mirror in Maggie’s efforts to secure for Oliver a decent education that she can barely afford. In focussing on these economically straitened characters, St. Vincent is also portraying the society that marginalises them – that forgets its veterans, that isolates its mothers, that abandons its elderly. This is, in short, an America where the very survival of ordinary, hard-working citizens requires solidarity, and a degree of saintliness. Amid all this socieconomic critique, the film also never forgets to be funny.

Anton Bitel