First, a rant. If it is a little inside baseball, I apologize.
I could have figured out that St. Vincent was a production by the Weinstein Company without seeing the logo before the movie started. This is because the movie feels like it's been chopped up to oblivion, yet is also somehow bloated and overlong. This film also features Academy Award-nominated actors in underwritten roles with go-nowhere plot threads (Naomi Watts and Terrence Howard), included to underline already thuddingly obvious themes in order to maximize contrived sympathy and schmaltz. These are the folks behind the curtailed, inferior cut of last year's martial arts biopic, The Grandmaster, a film that felt like it could have been a masterpiece if someone hadn't meddled around with it.
Whew, glad that's over. The most frustrating part about St. Vincent is that its good parts are really, really good, and deserving of a better movie to surround it. It stars Bill Murray as Vincent, a curmudgeonly Vietnam veteran who becomes the babysitter of Oliver (sweet, deadpan newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) while his newly divorced mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) works late as a CAT scan tech. Vincent teaches the diminutive pre-teen how to fight properly, gamble at the horse track, and appreciate the finer things of the ladies of the night, one of whom may or may not be carrying Vincent's baby.
That woman, named Daka (Watts), is one of the movie's problems. She is a Russian prostitute/stripper with an unfortunate, Natasha Fatale-esque accent. Watts, an actress whom I love, is woefully miscast here as a character whose foreignness adds nothing to the film except discomfort. The aforementioned Howard plays Zucko, a fellow gambler of Vincent's to whom he owes money. Zucko is meant to be menacing, and he eventually threatens Vincent, but he practically vanishes from the film. Also present are character actors Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids), Scott Adsit (30 Rock), Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards), and Ann Dowd (True Detective) who fill out the rest of the cast in extremely small roles, none of which add much to the film, either.
So why am I nevertheless charitable to it? Because Murray, McCarthy, and especially Lieberher are absolutely wonderful. This is one of the biggest, most obnoxious characters Murray has ever played, and despite the fact that he has made a career on downplaying his lines, he shines as this incorrigible brute of a man. He has fantastic chemistry with Lieberher, whose big eyes, slight build, and Everybody demeanor make him instantly likable. Lieberher is also Murray's absolute match, quietly skeptical towards and in awe of the old man's misanthropic bombast. McCarthy is also surprisingly compelling in a mostly dramatic performance. Audiences are used to watching her as a tornado of bad behavior and destruction in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Tammy, yet she is also convincing as a financially strapped working-class mother. She has a terrific and deeply sad scene in which she loses composure and pours out her soul to a couple of unsuspecting strangers.
Best yet, writer-director Theodore Melfi demonstrates a keen eye for visual comedy that fits the actors like a glove. He uses the entire frame to tell his jokes, frequently shying away from the script when a look or a movement would do much better. He is less successful as a screenwriter, unfortunately, what with the previously mentioned story issues and bizarre, pointless characters. Had Melfi focused a bit harder, St. Vincent could have risen higher. The film we have succeeds with a trio of wonderful performances and an emotionally satisfying, if melodramatic, narrative that can't quite compensate for the distracting flaws around it.