Fighting to Be Warm, by David Bax
It’s not too far into Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent when Chris O’Dowd’s priest/grade-school teacher tells his class that they’ll be studying saints and then assigns them a project in which they find someone in their lives that they believe has the qualities of sainthood. At this point, it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen. One of the kids in that class, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) lives next to a crotchety old guy named Vincent (Bill Murray); the movie’s called St. Vincent; you can probably write the rest of the movie yourself. And you can also predict the objections from the Catholic Church. I mean, it’s kind of a slap in the face to their canonization process if 30 ten-year-olds in Brooklyn can find 30 different saints all on their own. In any case, making the outcome clear early on is probably a good idea. It keeps the audience from harboring any illusions that the film will be anything more than meets the eye. As a result, it rarely feels annoying or cynical, just sort of generally lightweight.
Vincent is a drunk who lives alone in a house he’s just learned is no longer worth any collateral. When a recently divorced mother named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son, Oliver, move in next store, Vincent becomes a reluctant babysitter in order to gather enough cash to keep him in booze and cigarettes. Vincent, Oliver, Maggie, Vincent’s favorite prostitute, Daka (Naomi Watts) and a few others come to make up a haphazard society of sad people who are ready for their lives to change but unmotivated to make it happen. It’s like a long pilot for a sitcom. A Drunk, A Call Girl, a Nurse, Two Schoolboys and a Baby. Oh, yeah, there’s a baby, too.
Despite the (actual) title, St. Vincent is largely an ensemble piece. Melfi and veteran cinematographer John Lindley (Field of Dreams, Pleasantville) highlight this fact by repeatedly employing head-on close-ups that linger just long enough to give the impression that the character is waiting for her or his portrait to be taken. Like a lot of the movie, it’s a little bit flashy and a little bit humanist.
Camera tricks aren’t enough to overcome the creaky screenplay, though. As pleasantly polished as the film looks, the viewer cannot help but be aware of all the times he or she is asked to ignore a character’s questionable actions or lack of actions simply because that’s what needs to happen to keep the plot on course. For instance, given what Maggie learns about Vincent’s behavior, why in the world would she keep letting him look after her son?
It’s probably because the threats of danger are superficial at best. Perhaps Maggie knows she’s in a movie and she feels as safe as we do. St. Vincent may flirt with some harmless political incorrectness but it’s just this year’s version of Little Miss Sunshine, the indie dramedy you can take your parents to.