Figuring out where we belong in life, and just as importantly who we belong with while we’re living it, are the two great undertakings of our short time here on earth.
Getting them right, or as close to right as this often flawed existence allows, is not for the fainthearted, the daunting nature of the task at hand complicated even more if we once had people and a place to call home, but are now back at life’s drawing board, wondering where to go next, and who we should take with us.
It’s a situation that all the main characters in first time feature director Theodore Melfi’s film St. Vincent finds themselves in, their sense of where they once belonged shaken to the core, largely by events beyond their control.
Curmudgeonly, irascible Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray in fine form) doesn’t seem overly troubled, on the surface at least, by his unenviable position, having formed a “family” of sorts out of sassy, pregnant “lady of the night” Daka Paramova (Naomi Watts triumphing in a limited part) – the exact terminology used for her occupation is gleefully made use of throughout the movie – alcohol, and racetrack gambling.
His blithe disregard for social niceties, eternally grouchy countenance and apparent dislike for people of all stripes masks the true extent of a man who long ago lost the one thing that moored him to any semblance of the life he once knew – his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife Sandy (Donna Mitchell) who now sits in an expensive nursing home Vincent can no longer afford unable to recognise him.
It is a tribute to Murray’s talent for elevating his characters beyond their cliched bases that he is able to take a character who is initially as stereotypical as you’re likely to get, and burnishes him with the sort of three dimensional complexity and emotional nuance that grants him real poignancy and depth, such that you can understand why his new young neighbour Oliver Bronstein (Jaeden Lieberher) would find some sense of belonging with him.
Oliver, acted by Lieberher with a naturalness than makes him endearing rather than precociously annoying, of course is none too impressed with his bad-tempered neighbour at first, befriending him only out of necessity when he finds himself locked out of home after his first day the local Catholic school St Patrick’s, his wallet, phone and keys stolen by resident bully Robert Ocinski (Dario Barosso), and his newly-single, cheated-on mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy in a pared-down straight role that she plays with just the right amount of everything) unable to get away from her new make-or-break job.
Their awkward, mildly adversarial attempts at relating to each other soon give way to what will sound like predictable rapprochement between the angry old man and the wide-eyed kid who is more thrown than he will admit by a new neighbourhood, school and the unexpected sudden absence of his father, but which, thanks to the talent of both actors, Murray in particular, is infinitely richer and more complex than that.
What makes the relationship that develops between these two lost souls so special and touching, and not in the least emotionally manipulative – though you could be forgiven for thinking that’s what will happen with the cliched building blocks first presented to you – is the way neither of them plays their characters for obvious effect.
Murray’s Vincent may on paper be the original disappointed-by-life curmudgeon unknowingly waiting for his very own Anne of Green Gables figure to come along and shake things up but as played by the venerable, idiosyncratic actor, he is revealed as a multi-layered man who is caught uncomfortably between who he was, a decorated Vietnam war hero and funny devoted husband, and who he is now, a half-shell of a man who is either unable or unwilling to fashion a new life that will sustain in the time he has left.
Oliver too is in limbo, aware of why his mother had to leave his father – as he points out to her at one point with hilarious matter-of-factness it’s all over her Facebook status, something she notes with chagrin, quietly vowing to change it as soon as she can – and accepting of his new circumstances in life, but manifestly unable to make any headway in them.
Their coming together then makes sense on a whole lot of levels, with Vincent’s role as an unconventional after-school babysitter – he takes Oliver to the strip club where Daka works, the bar where he drinks bourbon till there is no more, and the racetrack where he is a habitual loser to bookie Zucko (Terrence Howard), all without Maggie’s knowledge – giving a quiet, overwhelmed Oliver the confidence to stand up for himself and make something of his new lot in life, something he movingly pays tribute to in the film’s finale when he names Vincent as the person he has chosen to honour in his “Saints Among Us” presentation.
What makes St. Vincent such a pleasure to watch is that while Melfi’s script does appear to have every inspiring cliche in the book stuffed into it, red flagging it as a possible emotional cheesefest of such epic proportions you may turn lactose-intolerant while sitting in the theatre, it is not as cliched or cloying as it first appears, with any residual lingering sense of been-there-done-that a thousand times over, erased in part by Melfi’s deftly-executed direction.
Much of the credit for the film’s dodging of well-worn manipulatively sentimental tropes though is principally due to Murray’s previously noted gift for defying a conventional playing of the role, injecting mischievous humour, an irascible devil-may-care attitude (there to mask the pain but there nonetheless) and a casual, humour-filled disdain for all of humanity into his performance.
It’s fresh take on 1001 redemptive cliches also owes a great deal to the fine acting by Lieberher, McCarthy and Watts, a sly sense of humour that is evident throughout the movie with the even the film’s credit allowing Murray a chance to shine as he sings along to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” with his headphones on, and a genuine, warm humanity that always take precedence over any temptation to go for easy, cheap, non-character based jokes.
St. Vincent, for all its warmhearted outcomes, and it does pretty much end as you might expect it to, doesn’t sugarcoat life’s challenges, or the amount of effort it takes to overcome them, lending the film the kind of gravitas that other movies in its milieu fail to achieve, and affording the ostensibly cliched key moments in the film, including its rousing but grounded finale, a realness that makes its events ring truer than they might otherwise do.
This is an Anne of Green Gables for the real world, a movie that recognises that finding out where you belong in life and who you belong with can seem like an insurmountable task at times given the array of daunting obstacles standing in the way, but one that, thanks to its willingness to tell it like it is, is able to declare and celebrate with real emotional effect and genuine good humour that it is possible to find your way home again.