Can a man who drinks too much, gambles too much, and takes up with a pregnant prostitute be a saint? According to St. Vincent, he may just have a chance. That’s good news for us all.
Vincent (Bill Murray) is a retired Vietnam veteran who is about as misanthropic as they come. Early in the movie, he curses a bank teller when she tells him the account he wants to close is overdrawn. Not a promising start for a movie hero! At home, Vincent is seeing Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant prostitute. One day Vincent is awakened by the noise of a moving van hitting the tree in his front yard. He finds Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver moving in to the house next door. Needless to say, Vincent does not extend greetings to them, but tells Maggie that she will have to pay for his tree and damaged fence. When Oliver comes home from his first day at Catholic school (Oliver introduces himself to his teacher as being “Jewish, I think”) after having his clothes, phone, and keys stolen, he ventures to Vincent’s house to ask if he can use the phone to call Maggie. Reluctantly, Vincent lets him in, and lets him stay until Maggie comes home.
Vincent announces to Maggie that she owes him for babysitting Oliver. Without any options, Maggie decides to let Oliver stay with Vincent in the afternoons until she gets home from her job as a nurse in a nearby hospital. Vincent takes Oliver to a bar and the race track, among other inappropriate places. On the plus side, Vincent also teaches Oliver to defend himself against school bullies, and takes him to a nursing home to visit a beautiful woman, who we later discover is Vincent’s wife, who has Alzheimer’s.
This scenario sounds rather familiar: grumpy old man mentors boy who both grow in the process (think Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”). But there are some differences. Writer/director Theodore Melfi does not turn Vincent into a loveable geezer. He’s pretty much disgusting all the way through. Despite that, Oliver finds something to love in him. Pope Francis proclaims “Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it destroyed by vices, drugs, or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must, try to seek God in every human life.” Oliver is able to find God in Vincent. Maybe Vincent might even be a saint?
Despite its goodness, there are some parts of St. Vincent that are pretty hard to swallow. The first is that Maggie, who seems to be a good mom and intelligent woman, entrusts her son to a man like Vincent, whom she barely knows, with no questions asked. Couldn’t she at least try to find other options? Didn’t the school, like most every other school today, offer aftercare? I also found the character of Daka, the pregnant prostitute with an Eastern European accent, to be totally unbelievable. Finally, the boy who bullies Oliver at school becomes his best buddy a few days later after Oliver, coached by Vincent, hits the bully in the nose. Really?
On the plus side, I did like the depiction of the Catholic priests and brothers who run Oliver’s school. Most priests and religious in movies today either seem like total idiots or child molesters. It’s nice to see Br. Geraghty and the others at the school portrayed as competent, caring and likeable. Br. Geraghty even encourages the children in his class to study saints and go out and find saints in their world. That’s a great assignment!
So, “St. Vincent” is a mixed bag of a movie. Its premise of finding a saint without a lot of obvious virtue is both commendable and annoying at the same time. Murray doesn’t try to win over anyone, including the audience. Maybe that’s why Oliver’s recognition of Vincent’s goodness works, in an odd way. You don’t have to be nice to be a saint. It takes a lonely boy to find God in Vincent.
It’s not a great movie, but “St. Vincent” may actually be a good movie about saints for high schoolers. There’s good reason to pay attention to its PG-13 rating.
Tom Condon, OP