Theodore Melfi’s debut feature, St. Vincent, is a heartwarmer that never insults—exactly the opposite of what its protagonist, Vincent (Bill Murray), is supposed to be: a disgruntled drunk who nobody likes. Trading in the quiet, aloof, melancholic persona of his Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers characters, Murray at first seems to be going full grouch. Ultimately, though, Vincent turns out to be just the kind of character who aging actors play regularly these days: a curmudgeon with a heart of gold. (Fitting, then, that Jack Nicholson was apparently interested in the part before Murray.)
The revelation of Vincent’s humanity is set up when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), move in next door. Vincent offers to serve as babysitter (for a fee, of course), and not too long after, he and Oliver develop a bond. Murray does have a few great moments, most notably when he brandishes a crowbar and threatens a group of students bullying Oliver: “Whatever you do to this kid, I’ll do to your mothers.”
Melfi sprinkles a few other memorable lines in St. Vincent’s opening half, but as a mid-plot twist turns the film irrevocably toward the saccharine, the script’s unpolished aspects become visible: the way that the bookie (Terrence Howard) to whom Vincent owes money all but disappears halfway through; the manner in which Vincent’s pregnant Russian prostitute girlfriend (Naomi Watts) exists largely to allow for stereotypical jokes founded on her accent and coarse language. She’s also another character for Melfi to redeem. That, after all, is the message of the film, spoiled from the start by its title: All of us are good at heart, all of us can be redeemed.
David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn seems less immediately given to appreciating the bright side of life. Its eponymous main character, played by a subdued Al Pacino, lives alone, like Vincent, in a home with an unaltered 1970s décor. Unlike Vincent, he’s not cantankerous; he’s forlorn, working as a locksmith while pining over Clara, a woman with whom he had an affair several decades before and hasn’t seen since. Green is less sappy than Melfi, but he’s no less given to overwrought emotion. The latter is there in the letters that Manglehorn writes to Clara, with lines like “there’s always tomorrow, but I’m telling you, Clara, I’m losing hope in tomorrow.”
And, in the end, Green also proves himself equally disposed to tired sentimentalism. It’s there in the close-ups that Green inserts sporadically of world-weary strangers, or in the spontaneous love song that Manglehorn witnesses at the bank, sung, one assumes, by a husband to his wife. The combination of those two moments is telling: Green is attracted to those who seem resigned to tired lives, but only as a symbol for why we must struggle against resignation. At one point, Manglehorn tells a bank teller he regularly flirts with (Holly Hunter) that “he’s no saint.” But he certainly would count as one in St. Vincent’s world (given some sporadic magical-realist elements in Manglehorn, he might even count as angelic). Which is all well and good, if you’re interested in saints. But if you’re more compelled by sinners, best to move along to something other than these two movies.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.