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Bill Murray, St. Vincent, and the Case for Good Corn

29/10/2014 14:56 GMT | Updated 28/12/2014 10:59 GMT

I once heard Bill Murray say in an interview there's good corn and there's bad corn. The actor's widely acclaimed 1993 movie Groundhog Day was corny, to be sure.

In Groundhog Day, misanthropic TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania with producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) on an assignment Phil despises; he's there to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. Once in Punxsutawney, Phil gets stuck in a loop and relives the day over and over again. There's self-deception. (amusing) dishonesty and ultimately despair (Phil tries to commit suicide). But reliving the day turns out to be a gift, a chance to get things right -- to improve, to gain self-awareness, to find redemption and love. In the end, boy gets girl, life begins anew. Groundhog Day is good corn.

Having heard Bill Murray on the subject and reflected a little myself, I still can't convincingly explain the difference between good and bad corn. But I do know good corn exists and there are times when a good dose can be very therapeutic.

That's what I got from Bill Murray's new film, St. Vincent. Vincent (Bill Murray) is a hard drinking, heavily indebted, gambler and loner. We don't know much of the details, but life has bruised Vincent in serious ways. The story is set in the Sheepshead Bay section of working class Brooklyn in New York. There's nothing soft or sentimental about Vincent and his daily existence. He pays for sex from a pregnant Russian club dancer named Daka (Naomi Watts). He's threatened by loan sharks. It seems his only friend is a fluffy white cat named Felix.

Enter a new neighbour, a struggling single mom named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 11-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). To make a few bucks, the unshaven, disheveled Vincent offers to take care of Oliver after school while his mother. a nurse, is still at work. With few other options Oliver's mom acquiesces and, not surprisingly, we discover that Vincent is a truly lousy babysitter. He introduces Oliver to his watering hole; to his favourite strip bar, his Russian prostitute, and the race track. Here and there, there's a hint of charm in the relationship. At one point at the horse races, Vincent and Oliver win a tidy sum. Vincent takes Oliver to the bank to open a savings account for the boy. Such points of light get extinguished quickly, though. In this case, Vincent is back soon at the bank to scoop out Oliver's little nest egg. Awaiting Vincent are the horses and one last big bet.

He loses everything.

Woven into all the sadness and self-absorption are the regular visits Vincent pays to a woman named Sandy who resides in a retirement home. She's lovely and rather elegant. Oliver tags along and sees how, in his brief encounters with Sandy, Vincent seems transformed. The conversations are proper and restrained. Vincent pretends, curiously, to be a physician. He shows warmth and patience, and tenderness.

We eventually learn that Sandy is Vincent's wife. She has Alzheimer's and no longer recognises her husband. Vincent robbed the gifted money from Oliver's account because he's behind in payments for Sandy's nursing home. In desperation, he also steals medication from the home so that Daka can sell the stuff on the street for fast cash. Vincent simply cannot bear the prospect of transferring his Sandy to an inferior facility.

I won't reveal the rest. There are more twists and trials. The ending of St. Vincent is predictable, and utterly hokey. And brilliant. In a couple hours on screen a simple story reminds us -- despite all the traps and confusion of life -- of why we've been put on this planet.

If that sounds corny, so be it. Such is the stuff of great corn and for some of us, sometimes, it's sorely needed.