Bill Murray has played this role before: the grouchy, irascible selfish hedonist, the heir apparent to Walter Matthau as the prototypical “Grumpy Old Man.” And there’s just something compelling about Murray’s screen presence, so much so that even after watching him for the entire movie, we still want to see him overwater plants from his porch during the closing credits, cigarette dangling from his mouth, singing along badly to his old-school cassette player strapped around his unenhanced frame. Somehow, he looks frumpy and ruffled even when he’s relatively dressed up. His living room is a disaster area. His old frame house is beaten down, unkempt, and unimproved, kind of like he is. He barks at the neighbors and seems to enjoy sitting by himself and scowling at the world going by. The exceptions are his kind-of girlfriend, the old hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold, Daka (Naomi Watts), complete with bad hair and a bad Slavic accent, unafraid to show off her burgeoning belly – even as a dancer in a strip club – because she’s both aging and pregnant. And ready to quit “the biz.”
The only thing Vincent really enjoys doing is going to the Belmont race track and blowing what little money he has. He’s already run through the reverse mortgage on the house and now has no more equity to borrow against. And the local loan shark, Zucco (a remarkably subdued Terrence Howard), is badgering him about owing money, an unpleasantness that will soon get nasty and ugly.
Despite the fact that Vincent hates almost everybody, he still accepts a job baby-sitting the new neighbor’s little boy, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), because he’s quiet and is not as annoying as he could be. And besides, Vincent needs the money. Oliver’s mom, Maggie (an even more subdued Melissa McCarthy), freshly separated, is trying to earn extra money for the custody defense fund, so she’s gone a lot. Vincent just takes Oliver wherever he goes, including to the racetrack and to his favorite local bar, where he routinely exchanges insults with the bartender with acid relish and cynical gusto. When it’s clear to Vincent, even through his alcoholic haze, that Oliver is getting beaten up at school, Vincent shows him how to deliver an uppercut to the nose that actually works, though Oliver’s mom is none too pleased with teaching her boy how to fight.
The only other person Vincent really cares about is an attractive lady at the nursing home who has dementia, for whom Vincent dresses up in a white doctor’s coat, listens to her heart with a stethoscope, and then sits and listens to her talk about how pretty the flower colors are by the pond where she lives. We later learn that this is Vincent’s wife, whom he still treats with a tenderness and affection, despite the fact that she has no idea who he is. Nor does he have any idea how he’s going to continue to afford her pricey assisted living facility.
Yes, we all know what’s happening here: Oliver and Vincent are going to develop a caring relationship, almost despite themselves and everyone around them. Sure, we’ve seen the premise before, but still, Bill Murray is just worth watching, and the 11-year-old kid is a good foil and actually a veteran actor himself.
Is Vincent a saint? Well, it depends on your definition… if you aren’t Catholic, that is. Is a saint someone who helps others? Regardless of character flaws? Maybe this film would generate a lively discussion among us moviegoers afterwards about who the saints are in our lives. And whether anyone else would consider them as such or not.
Ronald P. Salfen is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.