Thursday, October 16, 2014

The salvation of a nasty old man

Bill Murray is at his scuzzy best in St. Vincent, but too much sentiment diminishes his accomplishment..
When we talk about movies that canonize their characters, we're usually talking metaphorically. Although St. Vincent, which stars Bill Murray, doesn't actually confer sainthood on the character Murray plays, it comes as close as possible without submitting its case to the Vatican, complete with two certified miracles.

Murray, who can look disheveled even when he's standing still, plays a man on the verge of dereliction. Financial troubles have put Murray's Vincent in danger of losing his Brooklyn home. But it doesn't look as if Vincent would need much by way of external pressure to have him heading for the local saloon or the race track.

Desperate for money, Vincent agrees to babysit for a kid who just has moved next door (Jaeden Lieberher). Newly separated from her husband, the boy's mother (Melissa McCarthy) knows no one in her new neighborhood and must rely on the acerbic Vincent for help.

So will a cute and very bright boy worm his way into Vincent's cold heart?

Come on, it's a movie, and no matter how gruff Murray plays Vincent, we know from the outset that he'll eventually prove himself to be a decent enough fellow.

The movie wastes little time reassuring us that hard-ass Vincent has a good side: Fairly early on, Vincent is shown visiting his wife in the upscale nursing facility where he's struggling to keep her.

Murray makes it touchingly clear that Vincent loves this woman, who's evidently stricken with Alzheimer's. Perhaps Vincent's life started its down-hill plummet when his wife was institutionalized.

Occasionally, Vincent has sex with a pregnant Russian pole-dancer and prostitute (Naomi Watts). He treats her with scorn, but we know that when the chips are down, he'll come through for her, too.

Late in the movie, Vincent suffers a stroke, which pushes him into disability territory, and perhaps opens an Oscar path for Murray.

It's clear that Murray, who knows how to play nasty, could have made a sentiment-free movie about a man who's going to spend the rest of his life stewing in his beer.

But director Theodore Melfi doesn't have the stomach for flat-out misery, and he pushes the film toward an ending that shamelessly tugs at happily-ever-after heart strings.

Murray keeps St. Vincent watchable, and it's refreshing to see McCarthy play a character who's not cut from the same crude cloth that seems to have characterized most of her work since Bridesmaids (2011).

Still, the main reason to see St. Vincent is to savor of the bitter tastes Murray brings to this character and to imagine the hard-bitten movie that could have been.

In the end, though, St. Vincent's sweet-and-sour mix doesn't totally compute: It's like getting a sappy Valentine's card from Charles Bukowski.

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