Predictable ‘St. Vincent’ mixes schmaltz, humor

by Andrew Kingsley | 10/26/14 5:53pm

If you took Bill Murray’s floundering, philosophical narcissist from “Lost in Translation” (2003), threw in alcoholism and a Russian prostitute, then let him desiccate into an even more pruney scumbag, you’d produce his “St. Vincent” (2014) character, Vincent. He’s the kind of guy who touches all the apples at the supermarket, pockets his favorite and walks away.

These hardly sound like qualifications for sainthood — the Catholic Church would sooner canonize a mafia member than Vincent. Yet to the 12-year-old, down-on-his-luck Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), Vincent quickly becomes a Mr. Miyagi figure, steering him through the storm-tossed seas of childhood.

Vincent enters Oliver’s life as an after-school babysitter, taking over while his newly single and overworked medical assistant mom cannot (Melissa McCarthy). Like Jason Bateman’s character from “Bad Words” (2013), about another cross-generational friendship, Murray’s character has mastered the deadpan delivery for one-liners, sardonically slicing and dicing the world around him.

A Vietnam veteran who is short on savings and married to a wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Vincent has little to smile about. But misery loves company, and Vincent brings Oliver along for the ride as he pursues his own destruction.

A classic scene jump-starts the dynamic duo: middle school punks are bullying Oliver when Vincent steps in to scare them off. Picking the bloodied Oliver off the ground, the two walk away from the camera with their backs turned, calling to mind the ending to “Casablanca” (1942) and Humphrey Bogart’s final line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Perfunctory trips to a bar and racetrack ensue, with a healthy dose of slow-motion convertible drives and dancing. Each day is also perfectly sunny to amp up the warm and tingly ambiance. The film’s emotional arc is about as predictable as a small town fair’s roller coaster — viewers know just when each rise and fall will happen. When things are all hunky dory, audience members are keyed-in to brace themselves, suspecting Vincent will shortly go bankrupt or have a stroke.

Like “Up” (2009), minus the balloons, viewers suspect the crusty vet has a warm gooey center, especially when they see him adoring his snow-white cat, Felix — Latin for “happy.” How else, after all, would Oliver sanctify Vincent in film’s end?

Thankfully, Vincent’s character avoids a complete 180-degree turn. He remains Vincent, misanthropic and unpredictable, with just kernels of generosity. Murray admirably toes the line between these emotional states, perhaps taking a page from his own life of crashing bachelor parties and engagement photo shoots between making well-regarded movies.

McCarthy also steps up to the plate as Oliver’s mother, Maggie. Moving away from the gauche slapstick of “Bridesmaids” (2011) and “Tammy” (2014), McCarthy is the film’s voice of reason, composed as she reacts to the insanity around her. While Vincent feeds her son “sushi,” aka sardines, and introduces him to his pregnant “lady of the night” (Naomi Watts), McCarthy proves she’s no one-trick pony as a fierce, independent mother.

These admirable performances, including a precocious, un-histrionic showing by Lieberher, aren’t enough, however, to rescue the hackneyed story. The old-man-befriends-young-kid plotline has been so injected with schmaltz that it’s impossible to believe these relationships are organic. The movie never overcomes the sentimentalism its title suggests. For original flavor in the genre, stay at home and rent “Harold and Maude” (1971) instead.

Rating: 6.5/10

“St. Vincent” is playing at the Nugget at 4:10 and 6:40 p.m. daily.