In St. Vincent, Bill Murray plays Vinnie, a cranky, aging Vietnam vet with lots of vices. When newly divorced Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son, Oliver, move in next door, Maggie turns to Vinnie in desperation. She hires him to watch 12-year-old Oliver after school.
Vinnie introduces Oliver to a whole new world. Vinnie takes him to the horse track and the local bar, and Oliver ends up meeting his pregnant stripper/prostitute girlfriend, Daka. Obviously, this is not how it’s supposed to be.
Meanwhile, precocious—and small—Oliver is being bullied at his new school. Vinnie helps him learn to defend himself as well as taking Oliver on his rounds with him, rounds that include regular trips to a nursing home to visit a loved one who no longer remembers Vinnie.
The movie is laugh-out-loud funny, even while it succumbs to sentimentality and predictability. Bill Murray is convincing, maddening, and hilarious as Vinnie, and Melissa McCarthy brings an exquisite balance of comedy and sadness to her role as a woman who is drowning in her current difficulties. She gives the best performance of the movie, in my opinion, when she finally unloads all of her struggles with the priest and monsignor at Oliver’s school.
The film would be more effective if there weren’t a number of flaws in the film that raise questions such as, Why would this woman continue to leave her son in Vinnie’s care? How is it still summer weather in Brooklyn when it seems as though several months of school have passed? How does one patient recover so quickly from a medical episode?
None of these flaws takes away from the warmth of the movie. All of the characters, including the Russian prostitute played with a hard edge and with empathy by Naomi Watts, have some degree of complexity, dealing with real-life problems like poverty, unfaithful spouses, and lack of access to health care. In spite of these challenges, they help each other out. And when, at one point, they all sit down for a shared dinner of canned spaghetti and green beans, these flawed human beings might just represent a very low-liturgical communion.
Oliver’s Catholic school teacher is a welcoming and sensitive priest. He has the class research what it means to be a saint and encourages students to see the saints in their everyday lives. In some ways, this film feels like a meditation on common grace. Vinnie is not a good guy. He has no aspirations to be a good guy. But something in him drives him to go out of his way to offer acts of love in certain situations. As Reformed Christians, we recognize that as the image of God, visible to varying degrees and meant to be appreciated in anyone.
This movie finds the good buried in the hardened and hurting. It encourages viewers to look for the same in the people we encounter, to be ready to find the lovable in the seemingly unlovable. Which, after all, is what Christ does for each of us.
Note: This movie is rated PG-13 for the range of Vinnie’s vices on display. I wouldn’t take a young teen. (Weinstein)