“It is what it is,” a bank clerk tells Vincent McKenna (Bill Murray) early in Theodore Melfi’s new film St. Vincent. Vincent, who has been trying to get some kind of relief from the bank because of his severe financial problems, responds that everybody says that nowadays, and what it really means is “You’re screwed and you’re gonna stay screwed.” It’s a set up for a scene later in the film when a nursing home administrator repeats the “It is what it is” line and we can see in Murray’s eyes the feeling that, once again, he knows what the cliché really means.
In a sense, this is a microcosm of the entire film. For no one going to this movie will fail to recognize that to a large extent, the movie itself is one big cliché. In the grand tradition of Bad Santa and Gran Torino, the plot of St. Vincent revolves around a relationship between a curmudgeonly, profane, and unlikeable old man and a young, pre-teenaged boy who is in severe need of a father figure—in this case the boy is Oliver, played by the surprisingly genuine Jaeden Lieberher. The crotchety old man turns out, of course, to have a heart of gold and teaches the boy valuable lessons, in particular how to defend himself against the bullies who are making his life miserable since he has started at his new school after his suddenly-single mother (in this case Maggie, played with unlooked-for restraint by Melissa McCarthy) has moved him to this place (in this case, Brooklyn). Can anybody say Karate Kid?
But just as Vincent looks through the verbal clichés he is fed by authority figures in the film, so first-time writer-director Melfi takes us beyond the formulaic motifs in the plot to something much more real behind them. While some reviewers might complain that Vincent’s transformation from drunken, gambling lout to heart-of-gold “saint” at the end of the movie is banal and unrealistic, I’d suggest they look at his character again: the fact is there is no transformation at all. Vincent is precisely the same person at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. It is what it is. He was screwed at the beginning of the film, and he is similarly screwed at the end. In the beginning, he lives in a rundown house, is in deep financial trouble, drinks too much, smokes too much, gambles too much, and owes a good deal of money to the bookie Zucko (Terrence Howard). Few people like him, except for two regulars at the bar he hangs out in, an attendant at the nursing home that he visits regularly, and Daka (Naomi Watts), the pregnant Russian immigrant stripper/hooker whom he sees once a week (and to whom he also owes money). At the end of the film, almost none of this has changed. We still don’t know how he’s going to pay his bills, and whether he will ever dig himself out of his situation with Zucko. He hasn’t quit drinking or smoking. He has had some losses that make his life even sadder than it was before. It’s true that he has gained two new friends in Maggie and Oliver, and Daka has moved in with her baby—at least for now. But Vincent is no different than he was. And his life has not really changed. He was screwed and he is going to stay screwed.
But the audience, by the end of the film, has learned a lot more about Vincent. Twice in the script—once in addressing Maggie and once Oliver—Vincent declares matter-of-factly “You don’t know me.” The line is also directed in part at the audience, as a kind of warning not to judge him until you know his whole story. Much of his story does come out in the movie—but not all of it. We are given enough, though, to see that his kindness toward Oliver is foreshadowed in his kind treatment of Daka as well as his nursing home visits, which I can’t get into without a spoiler alert. We know some of the things that have caused his downward spiral. We find out about his record in Vietnam. But these are all things that happened before the timeline of the film. They have made Vincent what he is at the beginning. They don’t change what he is at the end.
For ultimately, this is a movie about character, and the story is secondary. And so we can forgive some of the unrealistic plot elements: How believable is it that a mother, even one fairly desperate for childcare, would hire a fairly obvious derelict like Vincent to babysit? And how likely would Vincent be to think that babysitting for twelve dollars an hour would somehow help alleviate his money woes? And is it really likely that a hard-drinking retiree could drag a twelve-year old kid around to bars and to the racetrack without his mother’s knowledge and without raising the eyebrows of anyone in authority? Finally, how likely is it that Brooklyn would consistently enjoy southern California weather in the middle of Oliver’s school year?
But it is difficult not to care about the characters in this film. Bill Murray has become a remarkably nuanced actor in his roles of the past two decades, in films like Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and his Wes Anderson vehicles beginning with Rushmore, and his turn as Vincent McKenna is natural, believable, and manages to makes Vincent a character with whom we sympathize without drowning the role in sentiment or bathos. Newcomer Lieberher makes Oliver a regular nerdy kid, and manages to make the character uncannily perceptive without making him cloying, cute, or affected. McCarthy is refreshing playing against type in a “straight man” role, with none of the broad humor we are used to seeing in her performances. Like Vincent, her character is a cliché—the newly single mother battling to keep her child with her and working long hours because her cheating husband won’t pay her child support. But through the formula we do see her own mistakes and weaknesses: she is no saint, but she is also not in need of “rescuing” as so many single movie mothers are. As for Watts, she has less to work with and a role that is mainly caricature, but there are moments—sometimes only in a facial expression—when she becomes more multi-faceted than might be expected. I should also mention Chris O’Dowd (McCarthy’s co-star in Bridesmaids), who is likeable as ever playing a Catholic priest who is Oliver’s teacher.
The one exception is Howard as Zucko the bookie. He is given almost nothing to do, and nothing in the script allows us to see anything other than the one-dimensional heavy. One wonders why an actor of Howard’s caliber would have taken this role, unless of course a significant portion of his role was edited out of the film’s final cut.
Ultimately, though, this is Murray’s movie. Apparently Melfi, who has been peddling this script for years, was finally able to get a meeting with Murray and sell the notoriously reticent actor on taking a chance with this first-time filmmaker. Murray’s association with the film doubtlessly helped land other talent in the likes of McCarthy, Watts, Dowd and Howard. But Murray’s performance is a memorable one, and one that some are already touting for a possible second Oscar nomination for him. Though that seems unlikely, since such honors do not often go to comic roles like this one, the performance does make this movie worth watching, and convinces me to give it three Tennysons.