St. Vincent Is No Bad Santa. Review of Bill Murray's New Film.
Monday 8th December 2014 | Ben
St. Vincent is a film about a cantankerous old man who despises everyone and the young kid that makes him see there is still good on this planet of ours.
That also happens to be the premise of about 20 other films: Up, Denis The Menace, Bad Santa, and to some extent Gran Torino. Like St. Vincent, with the obvious exception of Up, all the films boast Academy-Award winners or nominees as the belligerent leads: Matthau, Thornton, Eastwood. Unfortunately, St. Vincent differs from the rest of the canon by not being able to add anything new. In fact, it merely feels like an ersatz amalgamation of the qualities explored in those films. Matthau perfected the resistant baby-sitter neighbour in Denis The Menace, Up had the misanthrope’s heart-rending backstory, Gran Torino tackled the unpalatable racist views. Bad Santa had... well it had the most important element - the unpredictable, demented element. In fact, it is clear that St. Vincent’s most apposite comparison is Bad Santa. Not just because of the trite observation that Santa is a saint (St. Nicholas)...or the juxtaposition of ‘Saint’ and ‘Bad’, but because of the rules it attempts to play by – or break, depending how you want to look at it.
The late great Roger Ebert praised Bad Santa for successfully violating ‘unwritten parameters governing mainstream American movies’. St. Vincent, on the other hand, feels like a film that pondered violating those parameters but ultimately felt uncomfortable at doing so. Halfway through the film, Vincent makes a truly despicable, albeit a hackneyed, decision. It could have been serious enough to propel the rest of the action and yet, it was never brought up again. In fact, apart from that one, inconsequential instance, Vincent is not bad at all; he looks after the people in his life, he’s a brave war vet, he’s got a fluffy fat cat. So what if he took the kid to a bar that feels like a slightly darker Cheers? So what if he took him to a sunny racetrack? There were no repercussions, no bad mistakes made. Therefore, we were never convinced that Vincent was a truly reprobate character at the beginning of the film, and so do not believe that he actually went through that much of a transformation, despite the film’s efforts to convince us otherwise. Compared to Thornton’s Willie T. Stokes he’s always been a bona fide saint.
Murray, playing the eponymous Vincent, manages to convey a couple moments of real darkness in a character otherwise choked by a goody-two-shoes’ idea of what being bad is. Melissa McCarthy seems to be jumping onto the train carrying a hoard of comedic actors to dramatic roles. She gave a good, understated performance and it will be interesting to see where she moves on from here. Chris O’Dowd was reliably funny in what little screen time he had and Naomi Watts was a Russian stripper. We have no idea what Terrence Howard was doing. He was another loose end the film didn’t bother dealing with. Jaeden Lieberher, in only his second film role, is excellent as Oliver, the kid who finally gets through to Vincent. He shows a range and ability beyond his years and it’s only the chemistry between Murray and him that elevates this film above a mere soppy indie flick.