Bill Murray has been a mostly unadventurous actor. Whether that lack of exploration of character is a design of his own choosing or some weird alignment of stereotypical casting – where he gets to do the same kind of roles over and over again, like living in the fictional universe of Groundhog Day but in real life – is a debate for the ages.
Murray has shown that he does possess immense talent as a dramatic actor, most famously in Lost in Translation.1 However, all we get to see usually on-screen is the ‘Bill Murray staple’ – a misanthropic, quick-witted cynic who’s stuck in a world he can’t quite comprehend. He’s not what Stephen Fry termed the “British Comic” – a Quixotic personality who’s hell-bent on upholding standards of nobility and civility in an inherently absurd world. Murray’s comic persona is very much the “American pantomime”. He doesn’t care about the world or what the world thinks of him and is very public about this sentiment, damning any notions of nobility. At least, that’s the mask Murray’s pantomime puts on. Because secretly, all he wants, all he really wants, is to be understood and accepted by the society that he so wilfully mocks. He wants his cynical worldview to be proven wrong. Murray’s pantomime tells us the story of The Cynic, who’s actually just a hopeless romantic! Perhaps, that much is true for all cynics. He’s told us The Cynic’s story in different films and in different ways – sometimes even in delightful cameos – but the heart of the story is always the same.
In St Vincent, Murray gets to take the character of The Cynic to its logical extreme, in the form of Vincent MacKenna, a washed up recluse who’s broke and appears to possess all the vices imaginable in this big, bad world – he gambles, swears and curses frequently, and even has a regular on and off affair with a pregnant Russian prostitute, whom he poetically refers to as a ‘lady of the night’. I say ‘appears’ because of course, he isn’t really what he lets on. Vincent’s ‘saintly’ qualities come to the fore when, broke and desperate for cash, he agrees to babysit his neighbour Maggie’s (Melissa McCarthy) son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Oliver brings out the hopeless romantic in Vincent while getting a few lessons in the ways of the world.
The biggest problem with St Vincent is that it’s unsure of what it wants to be. Essentially, the film crafts a dramatic tone and Murray suitably underplays MacKenna. However, there are plenty of forced gags and other attempts at humour that fall flat. The film desperately tries to come across as ‘funny’ where it could have worked better as a more forthright dramatic feature. Hence, Naomi Watts, an otherwise ostensibly talented actress, puts on a horrendously unbearable Russian accent – because that’s supposedly funny! Jenny McCarthy severely milks the single parent trope – because that’s supposedly funny! The film also teaches us that when you don’t want to participate in Morning Prayer, just say ‘I’m Jewish’ – because you guessed it, that’s also funny!
While the humour in the film is unfunny at best and offensive at worst, the dramatic moments don’t quite work either. Alzheimer’s disease should only be relied upon sparingly in feature films; so often such a debilitating disease gets reduced to nothing more than a plot device, as it is here. Similarly, the film tries to make a genuine comment about the problem of re-integrating war veterans back into society, but that comes a little too late in the film, coming off as nothing more than a half-baked attempt at adding depth to a paper-thin narrative. The film doesn’t know if it wants to be seen as a dramatic piece or a comedy or even a dramedy at best. In the end, it ends up an unsuccessful incarnation of any of these three.
This is particularly disappointing because Bill Murray is actually quite good in the film. It’s a cruel irony that Murray is the one who plays his character quite straight and really holds his own in a dramatic portrayal while everyone around him is keen to overact. Yes, Murray is playing his apparent staple character, but he brings a degree of earnestness to the character of MacKenna that it’s a delight to watch him every time he’s on screen, even if the film as a whole tends to be exceedingly annoying.
Perhaps, the issue was the casting of Murray as MacKenna. The film gives the impression that it wanted to mould itself so that it would gel with the image of a ‘Bill Murray staple’ production. It was marketed as a humorous film, though the screenplay has serious undertones and any attempts at humour felt extrinsic and forced into the narrative.
Theodore Melfi, who directed and also wrote the film, struggles with maintaining tonal coherence throughout. The emotional points serving as anchors of the film make their appearance too late, leaving the audience mostly disengaged with the narrative on screen. The screenplay also reduces a lot of serious issues that could have been explored in-depth and with genuine interest to mere plot devices, which makethe viewer feel annoyed and cheated.
All in all, in a relatively rare turn in a straight dramatic role, Bill Murray shines and makes you truly fall for the hopeless romantic. Unfortunately, lacklustre direction, a botched-up screenplay and over-the-top portrayal by the other actors in the film make St Vincent a forgettable venture. Definitely not worth your time this holiday season, especially not to start your year with!