I could watch Bill Murray read a phone book. Or hose down a patch of dirt. Correction: I did watch Bill Murray hose down a patch of dirt. For about five minutes. This is what makes up the end credits of St. Vincent, a somewhat sentimentally told tale of a sun-ripened curmudgeon softened by the articulate innocence of the new runt neighbor kid. The kicker is a brilliant ploy to get people to stay through the bitter end: frame Bill Murray chewing a cigarette, rambling along to Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm”, playing with a watering hose. I’d watch Murray butcher Dylan all day.
Eleven years after Lost in Translation, nine years out from Broken Flowers, Murray’s career has been more an internet sensation than anything resembling that of a hard worker’s. He picks his project like I shop for pomegranates. Very carefully, except sometimes when, fuck it. And good on him. But don’t get me wrong: Bill Murray is the best thing that has ever happened to the internet and, quite possibly, humankind. He lends his face to each and every Wes Anderson project, to the undying thanks of this critic (though he hasn’t had anything particularly juicy since what I just might consider his best ever role as Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic). He mic dropped perhaps the ultimate all time cameo in Zombieland (the man really needs to be knighted the king of meta). He even tried his best for gold with the critically dumped upon Hyde Park on Hudson, the FDR handjob in a field story. With St. Vincent, Murray’s not only returned to comedy but to the spotlight. Where he belongs.
Throughout the years, the one thing that has made Murray so infinitely watchable is his 8-mile thick slab of sarcasm, a trait that writer/director Theodore Melfi exploits to the fullest. With a (not totally consistent) Brooklyn accent, Murray’s drab sense of banter makes him the perfect jackass. Here’s a guy who’ll crash into his own fence, blame it on the neighbor and insist she pay for it. And yet, we’re still able to like him through it all. He gets cut off at the bar (with child in tow), smashes a glass and is kindly escorted out. Who other than Murray could pull off such a feat?
After a night of particularly committed drinking, Murray smashes up his face like he owes himself money. Bleedy, grumpy and hungover, he emerges from his dinky man-cave the next morning to a moving truck smashing its way through his yard. Without holding back a full blown hissy fit, he meets new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her shrimpy son Oliver, played by notably not annoying newcomer Jaeden Lieberher. Maggie’s a single mom and an MRI tech so her hours are numbered. When Oliver gets a beat down at his new Catholic school – Chris O’Dowd plays his irreverent but nonetheless clerically collared teacher – he’s sans keys and can no longer get into his house. With a politely timed “Excuse me, sir?”, he asks to take shelter in the very, very humble abode of the crotchety “but interesting” neighbor, Vincent.
At first, Vincent treats Oliver as one would a louse with halitosis. He makes him a plate of sardines and saltines (a dish my inner-child would very much not be opposed to) and calls it sushi. He takes him to the bar to get some drinking done. “Shut up” is the word of the day most days. He’s the babysitter equivalent of Taz, after a bottle of bourbon and a bong rip. Along the way, the two become accidentally close (as they always do in movies of this sort.) A trip to the horse races is laced with a real mix of uplifting dramatics and laugh out loud humor. There’s a montage to follow that will get you grinning like a loon. But it always comes undone. Vincent won’t ever leave good enough alone and Melfi won’t let his lovable asshole off that easily.
There’s tension were it needed be – bookie tough guy Terrence Howard adds nothing to the bigger picture – and that distracts from the emotional honesty at St. Vincent‘s core but as it crescendos towards its heart-rending finale, you’ll find yourself uncommonly willing to forgive it its sins. Scenes Vincent shares with his hospitalized wife are few – almost leaving me (shockingly) wanting more – and handled with delicacy and care, the touch of a director with real sensitivity. The more layers of the onion we peel back on old man Vincent, the more pavement is laid for the barrage of third act lumps in your throat.
By most accounts, St. Vincent shouldn’t work. It’s too tender in some parts, too chewy in others, like a microwaved steak. The conveniences are many, the happy resolution unnaturally tidy. Cruddy, pervy old men, though cruddy and pervy, can be made of gold. We’ve seen it before. It’s basically the Weinsteins’ retelling of Bad Grandpa. And did I mention Naomi Watts is a pregnant Russian prostitute? That casting alone is unthinkable strange, but it somehow works. And like the choppy cadence of Watts’ prego lady of the night, it moves indelicately, but ultimately wins us over. It just goes to show that maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when you’re old dog is Bill Murray, you don’t need any new tricks at all. Then, the old ones do just fine.