You know a movie's got problems when the story of how it got made is more entertaining than the movie itself. For weeks, the unlikely saga of first-time writer-director Theodore Melfi has been all over the web. We learned how he tracked down and then signed Bill Murray — who famously has no agent, just an answering machine connected to an 800 number even Edward Snowden would be hard-pressed to find. The filmmaker's resourcefulness is impressive. Too bad the same can't be said for his film.
Not since Garfield has the comic icon made such a head-scratching choice. Beginning with 1998's Rushmore, Murray has carved out a late-career place in cinema that's set the standard for Hollywood cool. So watching him struggle to make St. Vincent into something more than the derivative schmaltzfest it is proves not just disorienting but downright disheartening.
Think Bad Santa meets Gran Torino, and you've got a good idea what Melfi was going for, if not why. Murray plays an alcoholic Vietnam vet who lives in Brooklyn and dates a pregnant Russian stripper (a miscast Naomi Watts). His house is a wreck. His car's a wreck. Given that he spends his days getting eighty-sixed from the local bar, it's safe to say that Vincent himself is a wreck.
At least until new neighbors move in and change his life forever. Melissa McCarthy plays it straight as Maggie, a single mom whose job requires her to work long hours. Newcomer Jaeden Lieberher is Oliver, a 12-year-old whose wide-eyed innocence and lack of cage-fighting skills require Vincent to put down his drink long enough to intervene when bullies welcome the kid with a beating. It's a scene lifted verbatim from Bad Santa.
Vincent's gambling debts are mounting, so, naturally, he offers to babysit the boy after school. It's a toss-up which plot point is less credible: that Maggie would leave her child with a drunk or that even a drunk would believe he could keep the mob (represented by a miscast Terrence Howard) at bay with the few bucks he earned watching the kid.
To the extent the film features halfway-funny stuff (Oliver mowing Vincent's dirt patch), you've seen it in the trailers. The story's one surprise involves a health crisis that's tonally out of sync with the film and clumsily forgotten a few scenes after it's introduced. The pivotal, much-promoted scenes in which Vincent takes Oliver to the racetrack are beyond fake. Nobody who knows the first thing about playing the horses would make the moves this supposed old pro makes. It's one thing to have the mismatched pals bond, quite another to suggest that someone as desperate as Vincent would take gambling tips from a tyke.
Missteps like that do the picture in. Its creators put all their money on the sappy and formulaic. Murray supplies a moment or two of low-key comic genius. But, while Vincent may be able to save Oliver from the bullies, even Murray can't save this movie from itself.
A postscript on making lemonade when the Weinstein Company sends you lemons: I've always wanted to meet Murray. To that end, I suggested to the producer of the Critics' Choice Movie Awards — I'm a voting member — that this January's broadcast would provide a perfect opportunity for honoring the performer with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The producer's only reservation? We wouldn't want to give Murray that honor the same year we presented him with the award for Best Actor.
Somehow, after seeing St. Vincent, I doubt that's going to be a problem.