Like any movie in the curmudgeon-mentors-a-child subgenre, St. Vincent draws some fine lines, between comedy and sentimentality, formula and, well, more formula.
"You're just a spoke in the wheel," sighs Vincent (Bill Murray), standing over a bank teller (Greta Lee) who's just told him he can't close out his account. "So I do not want to tell you to go fuck yourself."
The scene is one of the first in St. Vincent, and it establishes a pattern. Again and again, Vincent faces down an institution as embodied by an individual. Again and again, he understands the complexity of the showdown, his simultaneous daunting wit and helplessness versus the clerk's essential dumbfoundedness. In this and other such conflicts, Vincent wins, at least in the sense that his reasons for being unreasonable and irascible end up seeming reasonable. That, and he's played by Murray.
Murray is the movie's best and only trick, which the movie knows and makes clear from its start, when Vincent sits in a bar midday and tells a joke for an appreciative audience of three (who include the great Reg E. Cathey, who might have half a line). By the closing credits, the love of Murray is complete, with an extended scene where Vincent sits in his dirt-lot-of-a-backyard, running through a number of activities -- smoking, watering a plant -- that would only be dull if run through by someone else. Because it's Murray, who only has to show up to make a headline, this series of shots, from assorted carefully considered angles, might pass for droll comedy or deep contemplation, depending on your mood.
What happens in between these scenes explains the film's title, by way of Vincent's new neighbors, hard-working single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her preternaturally sensible 12-year-old Oliver (Jaeden Liberher). That Maggie is undergoing a difficult child custody fight makes her tense; that she works as a CAT scan tech makes her sensitive, as she looks at loss and trauma all day long, but cannot speak with the patients whose terrible fates she observes. This helps her appreciate Oliver's naive optimism ("It's good to think good things," she tells him) and also to deal with Vincent, who agrees to babysit Oliver after school for money, then plays the curmudgeonly old-guy with questionable judgment: he feeds the sardines and saltines for dinner, teaches him to fight the bully at school (Dario Barasso), takes him to the racetrack and the bar, introduces him to Daka (Naomi Watts), his favorite pregnant Russian prostitute.
These episodes don't so much hang together as a developing relationship for Oliver and Vincent as they serve as sketches, Bill Murray bits. You see how Oliver likes his not-so-dad-like-dad-figure. You also see some extra bits that Oliver doesn't, including some difficult interactions with a scary black bookie, Zuko (Terrence Howard), and the bottom-lining administrator (Ann Dowd) of the nursing home where Vincent's wife Sandy (Donna Mitchell) now lives, now unable to remember him. Like the bank teller, these other institutional reps aren't so much adversaries as indications of the choices Vincent has made, whether or not they were informed, admirable or even actual choices.
Like any movie in the curmudgeon-mentors-a-child subgenre, St. Vincent draws some fine lines, between comedy and sentimentality, formula and, well, more formula. The lessons learned are what you expect (bullying is bad, babies are good), and the routes to those lessons are cute. If Vincent looks reckless to Maggie, who hears about the drinking and the betting after the fact (and worse, in a courtroom where she's trying to put on a case for custody), you see what she doesn't, namely, that he loves his wife and also Oliver even if his means to show it are unusual. You understand how Vincent might look irresponsible, at least until he doesn't.
Here again, St. Vincent makes practical use of Murray. Even apart from the plot business where Vincent suffers a few more tragedies, the movie lurches toward its group-hug of an ending by engineering a series of schematic backstories for Vincent. This is managed by an assignment from Oliver's entertaining and endlessly understanding teacher, Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), to research local saints.
It's a great assignment for 12-year-olds, and Oliver takes to it with gusto, tracking down photos of Vincent as a child, a young bridegroom, and a marine in Vietnam. It's good to remember how hard a life can be, how it might produce frustration and resentment, eccentricity and impatience, as well as utterly brilliant generosity. It's good to be 12, when you can look at others so clearly and so openly. And it's even better to be looking at Murray. Who can resist the man whose one regret is Garfield?