It’s always nice to see Bill Murray on the big screen, and particularly in a lead role. Widely renowned for not using an agent to obtain his roles, merely a phone number and an answering machine that he checks from time to time, as well as just generally thrilling the public with his off-screen antics, he’s one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic figures and always adds personality to a film, regardless of whether the whole thing is good or not. First time director Theodore Melfi will be glad that he allegedly left over 60 messages for Murray on his phone to attract him to the role, because it is definitely Murray that drags what is a by-the-numbers tale of redemption out of the mire of just being a bit boring, with a little help from young Jaeden Lieberher and absolutely none from Naomi Watts.
Indeed, Murray excels in his role as Vincent, a gruff and insensitive man who ends up taking care of Lieberher’s Oliver Bronstein, a 12 year old whose mother works long hours and thus cannot be there. The setup for a gruff, dry and cynical man and a child to riff off each other is there, and this is most definitely where the film works best. The chemistry between Murray and Lieberher is always there, and that’s no doubt related to the strength of Murray’s performance, allowing the young actor to work off it which is a very useful thing for the inexperienced, and he does a great job. Watts, on the other hand, is a total disaster. Experiencing something of a career slump after 2013’s disastrous ‘Diana’, she turns up here as a Russian stripper/prostitute, complete with an accent that’s so bad it’s bordering on offensive. Sounding a lot like she based her accent on Oleg the meerkat and overselling everything about the character, from the accent to her strange attempt to appear authentic by missing words out of sentences, she is not believable at all. Frankly, Oleg wearing a miniskirt and crop top would have been far better in the role.
It can’t all be blamed on Watts though, since Melfi’s writing can at times be suspect and descend to unforgivable levels of schmaltz or stereotype that it’s just not worth it. When he does manage to keep it together the film can be heartwarming, funny and entertaining though, so it is possible to forgive him for Watts’ character and the more emotionally manipulative moments. The fact it walks a fine line on that front can work both ways though, and while it’s the case that the ending is definitely there to induce the weepies, it packs enough of an emotional heft to overcome the levels of cliched sentimentality that it exhibits. While ‘St. Vincent’ is definitely nothing special, it keeps its head over the water with witty lines, generally strong performances (Watts’ disaster excepted) and enough investment in its characters to pack some sort of emotional punch.
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