In a universe where audience response was as structured and predictable as the clockwork version that some movies inhabit, St. Vincent’s reviews would write themselves. There’d be praise for Bill Murray, in a role that combines his sardonic shtick with pathos and emotional depth, there’d be relief that Melissa McCarthy remained a sober and human presence throughout, delight at a kid who can act, and praise for a screenplay that delivered a many layered comic-drama that doubled down on Hollywood’s favourite themes: the family (or proxy family) restoration and the redemptive, or second chance story.
Yes, it’s all there alright. Yet at some point during Theodore Melfi’s movie, perhaps before the third musical interlude featuring an soft indie track replete with wanking guitar and woodwind instruments, but definitely after a lot of highly convenient story beats pull Melfi out of the corner into which he’s written himself, we start to sense the manipulations.
Does it matter that the movie’s trajectory is clearly marked in the first ten minutes or that the film’s more interested in tugging the heartstrings that tickling the funny bone? St. Vincent’s emotionally satisfying – isn’t that enough? Sure, it reminds you of As Good As It Gets with its cantankerous, antisocial lead, unlikely friendships and soft male presence bringing up the rear (Chris O’ Dowd filling the Greg Kinnear shaped hole in the narrative), but you’re soon invested in the male bonding between Murray and Jaeden Lieberher, and the slow reveal of titular character’s backstory.
Of course the problem with a movie with an inevitable ending and pretentions to serious drama, is a certain earnestness and lack of flamboyance which, coupled with little in the joke department, leaves you moved but underwhelmed. Once upon a time comic talents like Murray were given the space to cut loose, with unapologetically conspicuous humour grafted onto a dramatic spine, but these days it seems it’s all or nothing. Either movies have to be balls out “funny funny”, sometimes to the point of being exhausting, or low-key like St.Vincent. There was a rather entertaining middle ground once and wouldn’t it be nice if someone would excavate it?
Still, if you can ignore the conspicuous story structure (in the real world Murray’s character would almost certainly have killed himself), and embrace the indie sensibility, familiar trappings and all, then St. Vincent is a charming and occasionally heart warming movie that will appeal to people who like their melodrama repackaged with faux cynicism in a bid to reach those that wouldn’t have touched the story had it been told straight; that is, without Murray’s cultural cachet.