From the moment boozy misanthrope Vincent (Bill Murray) agrees to help his new next-door neighbor, struggling single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), by babysitting her bully-magnet son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), St. Vincent’s outcome feels preordained. But the rusty familiarity of the premise is consistently enlivened by Vincent’s prickly but humane sensibility. A vein of mostly verbal, often mildly sardonic humor imbues the film, even in places where Vincent never goes, like Oliver’s classroom, whose kind but firm teacher (Chris O’Dowd) bombards the students with a cascade of bemused one-liners. Meanwhile, the contrast between Vincent’s world-weary rebelliousness and the earnest middle-class world around him provides a few nicely gonzo sight gags, as in Maggie finding Oliver diligently pushing a gas mower in tight circles around the patch of dirt where Vincent lies in a plastic chaise longue, his ever-present drink on a nearby table and his old Walkman cranked up to blast ’70s rock. “I’m teaching him the value of work,” Vincent explains faux-innocently.
Throughout, the actors create emotionally coherent and sympathetic characters from a collection of often contradictory, monumentally irresponsible, or just plain improbable actions. McCarthy drops her usual funny-fat-girl shtick to play it straight, charming us into empathizing with a woman so beleaguered she entrusts her son to a man she knows nothing about. Murray sheds the ironic carapace that’s made some of his characters seem near-comatose to reveal the barely submerged anger and grief of a man who’s failed to drown his sorrows, despite his best efforts. We’re supposed to be impressed by the fact that he picks up his wife’s laundry every week from the assisted-living facility where she lives in a fog of advanced dementia, but the love and guarded optimism in his eyes when she recognizes him one day is far more moving than that fetishized gesture—especially since, as one of the employees tells him, the facility can do her laundry. And Naomi Watts gives even the weakest of the main characters, a foul-mouthed Russian prostitute with a heart of gold and a Vincent-induced baby bump, genuine toughness and smarts.
Vincent’s enormous debts, which plague him for much of the movie, sink conveniently out of sight toward the end without having been resolved. Major problems between characters are just as glibly patched up, like when Maggie and Vincent share a warm family-style dinner just a couple of scenes after blasting one another in a blistering argument and swearing that they want nothing to do with each other again, though there’s no reconciliation scene to explain why they’re friends again. And the plot strand that gives the movie its title, in which Oliver learns to see past Vincent’s crusty exterior and recognize him as a latter-day saint, strains credulity. Vincent’s a good guy, but if his paltry list of good deeds qualifies him for sainthood, that word has become as devalued as the trophies in a kids’ soccer league. But in the end, none of that matters much. What counts is a winning generosity of spirit in both the script and the talented cast. It, and they, make us like the characters enough that we’re happy to play along, enjoying the fantasy that this motley, half-baked crew could coalesce into one big happy pseudo-family.