Soaked in whiskey, dipped in brine, Bill Murray delivers a salty, acerbic, inebriated comic blast as the unlikeliest saint imaginable in “St. Vincent.”
The film, written and directed by Ted Melfi, is about paying homage to those overlooked and underappreciated good souls we bump into every day. In a roundabout way, “St. Vincent” delivers, though less as a film than a platform for an object lesson by St. Bill in effortless acting.
His sinner may not touch the deep, dramatic disaffection that the actor displayed in his Oscar-nominated portrayal in “Lost in Translation” or the sheer zany delight of his roguish weatherman in “Groundhog Day.” But Vincent’s darker strain of funny seems to put the actor at ease.
You see it in the opening scene in a Sheepshead Bay bar with Vincent, the curmudgeon Murray plays, pushing everyone’s buttons. It continues mostly unabated until the credit-rolling last image of Vincent slumped in a ratty lawn chair singing along to Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.”
Those final moments also serve as a nice coda for a film that is all about the storm. Vincent represents his own kind of turbulence. His stinging verbal assaults hit hard and fast, and few are spared. His favorite new target is Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a stressed single mom in a messy divorce who’s just moved in next door with her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Their across-the-broken-fence wars and truces and reluctant dependence drive the film.
Vincent is battered as well. A Vietnam vet with bad memories, his wife (Donna Mitchell) has dementia and lives in an assisted-living facility he can no longer afford. The Russian immigrant pole dancer Daka (Naomi Watts) he fancies is pregnant, broke and owed for services rendered. There is a growing gambling debt for money lost at the track and an increasingly unhappy bookie named Zucko (Terrence Howard).
None of this is played to engender sympathy, merely to light an already short fuse.
Maggie has nearly as many issues. She’s got a new job scanning brains and bodies for deadly diseases at the local hospital, no after-school child-care for Oliver, a custody battle brewing and the off-the-books movers she’s hired managed to sheer off a tree branch that crushes Vincent’s car.
Welcome to the neighborhood.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but desperation is the father of denial. Vincent is unkempt, drunk and angry. Maggie needs someone to watch Oliver a few hours a day. Vincent needs money. An unholy deal is struck.
Vincent may not be baby sitter material. He is, however, excellent comic fodder. And he’s got an excellent straight man in Oliver. Lieberher has an uncanny ability to quietly hold his own alongside Murray. An engaging combination of wide eyes and quiet wisdom, the young actor, in making his film debut, neither wilts in the face of Murray’s comic riffs nor disrupts the flow.
Melfi, who’s made his name in commercial directing, drew from personal experience for his feature film debut. Murray was a major casting coup, and it’s hard to imagine “St. Vincent” staying afloat as well as it does without him, particularly when the boy and the brute bonding begins to play out in pretty conventional ways.
The more Vincent and Oliver do together, the more about each of their lives is revealed. It’s the oldest trick in the narrative book to fill in the specifics of their trials and tribulations, and virtues and vices as well.
Melfi has assembled a strong cast that does a good job with the sometimes-slight material. McCarthy, who is so often over the top in films like “Bridesmaids,” “Identity Thief” and “The Heat,” shifts to softer, more vulnerable notes, tapping into the sincere side that first made her so watchable on the prime-time family soap “Gilmore Girls.”
Watts is a hoot, from the Russian accent to the way she plays the pregnant pauses during a pole dance. Chris O’Dowd, another “Bridesmaids” alum and a growing comic force in his own right, does a delightful turn as Brother Geraghty, Oliver’s teacher, who runs his classroom with the acumen of a stand-up used to dealing with hecklers.
Things are coming to an angry head on all fronts when an accident intervenes, or maybe it’s a higher power. It makes Vincent more dependent than he’s ever been. While Murray goes right there with him, it’s a little rocky. Meanwhile, Oliver’s hard at work on Brother Geraghty’s everyday saint assignment, which is where “St. Vincent” was heading from the start — cheese and sentiment threaten to blow through and break things apart.
There are times “St. Vincent” seems rather like young Oliver, very much a work in progress. Still, it’s hard to complain too much about the growing pains with Murray running so wonderfully amok in nearly every scene.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles