There are times when it feels like filmmakers are writing characters, and there are times when it feels like they’re simply writing parts. While a character is created as something out of which a story emerges, a part is created to appeal to an actor. A part has “moments” — catchy lines of dialogue or big speeches or emotional breakdowns. Both can be executed on the page well or badly, and both can be performed well or badly, but they’re still fundamentally aiming for a very different audience response. Characters may be great pieces of writing, but parts? Well, parts get noticed when people talk about awards. And while this may seem like nothing more than a semantic distinction, St. Vincent is a perfect example of the difference between parts and not characters.
Writer/director Theodore Melfi (shorts I Want Candy, Roshambo, Winding Roads) has given Bill Murray a classic part in St. Vincent. He plays Vincent MacKenna, a Brooklyn native who’s introduced to us as the kind of guy Charles Bukowski would think was living a bit too hard — an alcoholic in debt from gambling on horse races, living in a disastrously messy, underwater-mortgaged house with only his cat as company. But he’s still got enough life in him that he can throw down a funky solo dance to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” Vincent’s got your attention. Parts have a way of doing that.
The plot thickens when new neighbors move in next door: newly single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie’s new job as a CAT scan tech at a local hospital has her working late hours, so she needs someone to keep an eye on Oliver when he comes home from school. Fortunately, Vincent needs cash. And so the drunken slob comes to take Oliver under his dissolute wing. The surrogate-father relationship between Vincent and Oliver drives most of St. Vincent, providing awkward moments a’plenty, like when Vincent takes Oliver to the track or his local bar.
The gradual softening of the misanthropic caretaker is fundamental to stories of this kind. When bullied Oliver needs somebody to show him how to stand up for himself, a disgusted Vincent steps in to teach Oliver a few tricks. It’s like Bad Santa, if what Bad Santa really wanted for Christmas was to be The Karate Kid.
But the problem with St. Vincent isn’t merely that it’s schematic; it’s that it’s so schematic. It doesn’t take much time before we see Vincent visiting a patient in an Alzheimer’s care facility, whose relationship to him is fairly clear from the outset. He looks out for the healthcare needs of the pregnant Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts, accent-acting her ass off) he frequents. And we see Oliver’s religious studies teacher (Chris O’Dowd) assign the students the task of creating a biography of someone they consider a real-life modern-day saint, and it’s a complete mystery who Oliver might consider as his subject if you forget the name of the movie you’re watching.
But as formulaic as St. Vincent is, the performances are strong enough to carry the film, despite its flaws. Murray aims for something more than “get off my lawn” curmudgeonliness, finding sparks of funky energy that give Vincent vitality beyond his asshole-in-need-of-redemption roots. Young Lieberher is also pretty solid in a convincing take on adolescent geekiness, and McCarthy nicely underplays the role of a struggling mom trying to figure out her new identity. When those three are playing off one another — the less said about Watts’ thankless role, the better, really — St. Vincent hits more than a few funny, satisfying moments.
But there’s a degree of calculation at the heart of this movie that makes it impossible to become immersed in it, no matter how sloppily appealing Murray may be in individual scenes. The whole thing is built to reach its crescendo during Oliver’s school assembly. During that scene, our emotionally wounded antihero realizes that somebody gets him, having found his humanity in scenes that might as well come with a sign reading “Look for humanity here.”
Where as actors get a chance to disappear into characters, St. Vincent shows us what happens when actors get parts: They stand at center stage, receiving an award, waiting for everyone to applaud.