The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


St. Vincent

It would be hard to say which half of Bill Murray's career has been more interesting. The first half was filled with classic comedies like Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day. Somewhere along the line, he transitioned into the second half, establishing himself as one of our finest character actors. He now routinely makes films that straddle the line between comedy and drama: Rushmore, Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, etc. Whereas many of his contemporaries - Chevy Chase and Steve Martin, for example - have seen their big-screen careers wane, Murray has successfully reinvented himself to great acclaim from critics and audiences alike. St. Vincent continues this recent trajectory.

Murray plays Vincent MacKenna, a drunken, bitter war veteran. He spends his days either at the bar, at the race track, or with a pregnant Russian stripper/hooker named Daka (Naomi Watts). He's miserable, and he likes it. One day, Vincent gets new next-door neighbors. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) is a recent divorcee with a 12-year-old son named Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Her job prevents her from being home when Oliver is done with school for the day, so she reluctantly hires Vincent to play babysitter. In desperate need of cash to pay off a gambling debt, he agrees. Whether or not he's a good role model depends on how you look at it. On one hand, he takes Oliver with him to places where kids should not be. On the other, he teaches the boy to have self-confidence and to not take flak from the bullies at school.

St. Vincent probably sounds like one of those movies where an old crank has his heart warmed by a young child. While it's true that the film follows that arc and hits some predictable milestones along the way, it doesn't quite adhere to the formula the way you'd expect. We can see early on that Vincent is a good guy deep down, despite his gruff nature. As the story moves along, we learn more about where his harsh exterior comes from. And, perhaps most satisfyingly, St. Vincent never completely erases his edges. Instead, it asks you to accept that Vincent's thorniness is a fundamental part of who he is, and is something that will probably never change. There are no moments when he has some big epiphany and decides to start being a nicer guy. He is a nice guy, just one who only selectively shows it.

And that's the major difference. A lot of movies of this sort are about how a mean old guy learns to lighten up and appreciate the joys of life. St. Vincent, on the other hand, is about how someone can be deeply flawed and still be a good person. Who better than Bill Murray to get this idea across? No matter whether Vincent is having a cantankerous moment or a generous one, Murray continually shows us the character's humanity. One moment, he's asking Maggie about her divorce, then, when she starts to tell him about it, he replies, “No need to go into the whole story.” That's him in a nutshell: caring, but blunt. Murray indicates that Vincent assesses things quickly, and that this ability accounts in part for his bluntness; he doesn't need to be told what he already sees. The actor could have played this role in a very Bull Murray-esque way, but what makes the performance so remarkable is that he truly buries himself in the character.

Melissa McCarthy is also good in a more dramatic role than usual, while Naomi Watts (normally a very intense dramatic actress) steals every scene she's in, hilariously playing the pregnant hooker who's unafraid to call Vincent on his crap. And then there's newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, who avoids every cinematic cutesy-kid cliché. The young actor creates a believable character whose impact on Vincent feels sincere and unforced. Lieberher's scenes with Murray are the heart of the film, providing laughter and sentiment in equal measure.

Writer/director Theodore Melfi has made a movie that says something very relatable. Everyone has good and bad in them. For some people, the flaws move to the forefront, occasionally obscuring the good. But that doesn't mean that the good isn't still in there. It is, and it will reveal itself at the most surprising of times. St. Vincent builds to a climactic third-act scene that may be just a bit too pat in theory, yet works magnificently because of the sincerity of the performances and the screenplay's spot-on observance of behavior. This is a funny, charming, feel-good movie that rises above a few cliches to remind us that genuine decency isn't always the first thing you see when you look at someone else.

( 1/2 out of four)

St. Vincent is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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