[Warning: there will be mild spoilers in this essay, so don’t read it if you want to see the movie. – PB]
The movie “St. Vincent” is lifted out of cute cliché territory by the great Bill Murray in the title role as Vincent McKenna, a cranky Vietnam vet with a heart of gold. Supporting Murray are three terrific co-stars: Melissa McCarthy as a struggling single mom, young Jaeden Lieberher as the kid Vin babysits, and Naomi Watts as Daka, the pregnant, Russian “lady of the night” who keeps company and does business with Vinnie.
The movie is mildly remarkable for two reasons that so far have been uncommented on by the mainstream media, which is where I like to step in!
Melissa McCarthy is the first fat leading lady of a movie I can remember whose weight is never mentioned, and whose body size is not the impetus for any physical comedy, sight gags or plot conflict. This is a huge breakthrough for Hollywood, whose aversion to overweight performers is obvious to anyone who watches television or movies on a regular basis. Fat women, particularly, are almost non-existent in Hollywood’s universe except as comic sidekicks or expendable bit players. Melissa McCarthy’s character in “St. Vincent” never mentions her own size or weight, is never shown comically stuffing her face (a typical Hollywood trope), and is never bullied or harassed for her weight. She looks beautiful, she wears nice clothes, and she is treated as a human being worthy of dignity and respect. High five me, writer-director Theodore Melfi and casting person! Can we see more of this, please?
Also quietly notable is Naomi Watts’ depiction of a sex worker, a character names Daka who slyly evades the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché by twice insisting on being paid her full fee by her strapped broke client (Bill Murray). In one of the first scenes in the movie, we hear her berate Vin in no uncertain terms, telling him in a heavy Russian accent that she’s not a charity.
As the movie progresses, Daka becomes drawn more intimately into Vin’s life, but contrary to what at least a dozen movie reviewers I have read have written, she is not Vin’s girlfriend. He is a client of hers, and a friend. There is a difference. Daka is pregnant and vulnerable, and Vin is broke, in poor health, and also vulnerable. The two characters join forces in the end in a way that will be familiar to many financially vulnerable, working-class American — working out a shared housing and food in exchange for household help and emotional support. Daka is not in love with Vin, nor he with her. They share not romantic feelings but mutual affection and compatible needs. I am not surprised that mainstream American movie reviewers missed the multiple references to Daka’s expectation that she will be paid for her sexual or domestic services rendered, but I am disappointed. Daka is an independent working woman; one of the rare Hollywood depictions of a sex worker that manages to be funny and fair, that doesn’t romanticize her life (“Pretty Woman,” I’m looking at you) or end with a chalk outline of her body surrounded by detectives.
I hope we will continue to see more such realistic depictions of the complicated relationships and alliances forged by human beings in community. Storytelling is so much more interesting when it breaks from outworn conventions.