‘St. Vincent’ is a touching gem

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St. Vincent revolves around the unlikely relationship between a cantankerous old coot, Vincent McKenna (old pro, Bill Murray), and a 12-year old boy, Oliver Bronstein (newcomer, Jaeden Lieberher). They become next door neighbors, when Oliver’s newly divorced mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), moves to an ethnic enclave in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn with her son in tow.

A screen capture from the trailer for the movie "St. Vincent" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duZJnlpnmCQ

A screen capture from the trailer for the movie “St. Vincent” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duZJnlpnmCQ

Vincent is an alcoholic whore-monger. We see Vincent going at it with an extremely pregnant Russian hooker, Daka (Naomi Watts). As she describes her curmudgeonly client, he doesn’t like people and people don’t like him. Due to his gambling addiction, Vincent is in hock to a no-nonsense loan shark, Zucko (Terrence Howard). This financially-strapped misanthrope lives alone in his long-time residence. He is eking out a hardscrabble existence, courtesy of a reverse mortgage with the bank.

Oliver starts class at the local parochial school. It’s always challenging to be the new kid. To exacerbate Oliver’s woes, it’s the middle of the school year. It gets even worse-Oliver is a little shrimp, who is pathetically poor at sports. On his first day at the new school, his benevolent teacher, Father Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) invites him to lead morning prayer. It’s a well-intentioned gesture. However, Oliver is the product of a non-theocentric upbringing. He whispers to the teacher, “I think I’m Jewish.” Poor Oliver has just hit the bully fodder trifecta. He’s new kid, who’s pint-sized, unathletic, and shudders-a secular Jew in a Catholic religious school!

Since Maggie works long hours at the hospital, she reluctantly hires Vincent to serve as Oliver’s babysitter. Vincent is hardly a wholesome role model. The reprobate drags Oliver to his customary lairs; bars, strip clubs, and race tracks. He also instructs Oliver in the manly art of self-defense.

This film explicitly evokes St. William of Rochester, a patron saint of adopted children. Even those well- versed in Alban Butler’s definitive Lives of the Saints, may initially struggle to grasp the putative connection between St. William, an obscure 11th century figure, and the film’s eponymous protagonist. However, it turns out Oliver was adopted. Now, he has become an emotionally-orphaned latchkey kid.

With a cast that includes Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy, you might expect St. Vincent to be an over the top comedy. However, the film turns out to be a drama, with some genuinely funny moments.

This is a perfect role for Murray, who brings a sardonic edge to his character. This film is his first lead performance since 2005’s Broken Flowers. McCarthy seems intent on atoning for her recent hyperbolic histrionics in Tammy. This time around, she displays a welcome restraint. The real discovery here is Jaeden Lieberher, who is making his screen debut. He provides a disarmingly earnest performance as a young boy trying to fit into a seemingly hostile world. The central trio is well-complemented by Chris O’Dowd, who plays a priest, ironic considering his recent role in Calvary, and Naomi Watts as an English-mangling lady of the evening.

Screenwriter, Theodore Melfi, makes his directorial debut with this film. As Melfi has explained, his screenplay draws from experiences  in his own life. With St. Vincent, Melfi delivers a nuanced, multi-layered film. The film is blatantly manipulative. However, it toys with your emotions in a way that you won’t mind.

In “St. Vincent,” Bill Murray’s performance deserves Academy Award consideration; Melissa McCarthy’s warrants absolution; and young Lieberher’s suggests a promising screen career.

Replete with a surprisingly serious tone, “St. Vincent” is a touching little gem.

ST. VINCENT  **** 1/2   PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language) 102 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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