At first, St. Vincent, the directorial debut from writer-director Theodor Melfi, seems to belong to a hallowed lineage of indie comedies. It has the same sweaty, trashy, sun-soaked aesthetic of cult comedy classics like Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World or the Coens' The Big Lebowski, where the unreasonably funny heroes of the day are slackers, drunks, gamblers, prostitutes and all-around losers, but unlike those two films, St. Vincent slowly reveals many layers of earnest and heartfelt emotion. That would be fine if the delivery of the film's attempted pathos wasn't so heavy-handed that it threatened push the whole movie into the realm of the overbearingly saccharine.
We first meet Brooklyn resident Vincent McKenna (Bill Murray) as he tells a lead balloon of a joke in a seedy dive bar, then makes love to Russian "lady of the night" Daka (an oddly, but successfully cast Naomi Watts). Vincent is a drunk and a problem gambler, barely able to take care of himself. Through a string of unfortunate circumstances he becomes the babysitter for his next door neighbour Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) who has just moved into the neighbourhood with his recently divorced mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy). Oliver comes to learn more about the grouchy, misanthropic Vincent, and in the process learns more about himself.
It's not the most original storyline, but it's perfectly serviceable. The cast does a superb job, with Bill Murray turning in possibly his most effective performance since Lost in Translation. He is a sarcastic, prickly character, but the moments at which we see Vincent's vulnerability and passion don't come across as contrived or forced in Murray's talented hands. He seems to be using his best method acting tricks to bring life to a character that could have been a mere caricature. Melissa McCarthy's comic timing is superb (but of course we already knew that) even in scenes with a more serious bent, which - for the film's first two acts, at least - stops the more serious side to the story from becoming overwhelmingly dour. Her fiercely independent Maggie is also the kind of female character of which the cinema needs more.
It is when the movie comes to the real meat of the story - the sainthood of its eponymous character - that things start to come unstuck. There seems to be a shift in tone that is somewhat incongruous with the funny, irreverent, almost a little absurd set-up. The movie reveals itself not to be a sly, ironic and irreverent comedy like those mentioned above, but more like a standard comedy drama dressed as one. Of course, there were hints all along - the music is full of gentle, lilting guitars and pianos, and the titular character never does anything really debased - but the film's flow is still very jarring.
It's not a total train wreck, of course. Given that it is the director's first feature, it is extremely confidently made. The visuals are particularly striking, making use of unusual angles, slow-motion and tracking shots. John Lindley's cinematography is gorgeous, full of deep, rich colours and light that truly enhance the emotional heft of the story. If you give yourself over to it and check your expectations at the door, there is a chance you will be very moved by St. Vincent. However, if you struggle to stomach things that are sickly sweet in your cinematic diet, then this might not be for you.
St. Vincent is worth seeing because it is genuinely funny. None of the jokes fall flat, and even throwaway lines are absolutely hysterical. It is a credit to both Melfi's screenplay and to the cast that they have crafted such a nice balance of humour and darker emotions. It has its issues, but for the most part it's a hugely enjoyable piece of cinema. While it doesn't quite reach the heights of the comedic masterworks that it so often resembles, given its strong and infectious sense of humour, three-dimensional characters and spectacular production values, it's much better than average in a sea of repetitive and dull comedies that currently flood the cinema.
St. Vincent opens in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.