Bill Murray Soars In Affable "St. Vincent"

With his first feature film, writer-director Theodore Melfi has accomplished what many inveterate filmmakers haven’t – he’s gotten Bill Murray to come alive. The beloved but notoriously prickly comedy legend is in top form in “St. Vincent,” a frequently funny paean to charming cranks cut from the same cloth as its lead. It’s the actor’s most electric performance in ages, matching the kind of enthusiasm he’s typically reserved for the films of Wes Anderson. Through Murray’s presence alone, an admittedly safe premise is catapulted to must-see territory for fans of Murray and film alike.

Vincent Van Nuys (Murray) is a troubled old war veteran with the luck of real-life Charlie Brown – he falls victim to more accidents in the pic’s opening reel than Johnny Knoxville in “Jackass: The Movie” – seemingly set on a collision course with an early death. From alcoholism to a gambling addiction to a faltering romance with a Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts), if there’s a problem, Vincent’s got it. His relationship with booze and facial bruising seems a classic chicken-egg situation, Melfi’s screenplay setting us down in a day in of the life of Vincent Van Nuys. He’s a man so far down in the dirt he seems tempted to lie down and stay there.

When a recently divorced mother moves in next door with her socially stunted son, Vincent’s droopy-eyed glare is a dead giveaway – he sees them as one more inconvenience to be ignored or drowned in drink or written off as a footnote to a footnote in his impending obituary. He’s an old man with no time for young people, let alone their problems, content to wither away as the local pariah – the neighborhood scapegoat onto whom the townspeople project their own shortcomings. Only one remotely tidy corner of his life remains – a dementia-stricken loved one whose disease perversely keeping her disappointment at bay.

But the aforementioned divorcee, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids”) and her son, Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), are just as lost as their new neighbor, with the old man quickly, unwillingly being thrown into emergency babysitter mode for this latchkey kid made in his own image. An elder gentleman and a misfit kid bonding over their peculiarities isn’t a radically inventive storyline, but Murray possesses the ideal mix of childlike wonder and mischief-making to play the role flawlessly, while Lieberher acquits himself like a long-lost branch of the Culkin family acting tree – dryly funny, wise beyond his years, and a screen natural. McCarthy is nearly as good, flexing some dramatic muscles that she’s only hinted at in her comedic work.

“St. Vincent” might strike some moviegoers as a middle-of-the-plate softball, alternating cleanly between A, B, and C storylines, leaning hard on well-worn feel-good-isms. But it earns its warmth at every turn through vibrant performances and habitually sharp dialogue. The ever-reliable Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”) turns in a small but key role as Oliver’s teacher, Brother Geraghty, nudging the boy in the direction of compassion and forgiveness – qualities he’s not learning from his newfound caretaker. When the picture’s title finally comes into focus, it feels less than perfunctory, a genuine celebration of the idiosyncrasies that make us human beings.

Naomi Watts’ performance is a puzzling one though, with the actress’ broad Russian accent fluctuating more than Murray’s intermittent Brooklyn lilt. Her presence feels like a bridge too far in terms of star power, a sparse, inessential role tailor-made for a lesser-known actress. But Watts is clearly doing what’s been asked of her, providing Murray’s character with the romantic interest the screenplay requires. She’s less of a miss than the others are hits, cutting a noticeably slighter figure in contrast to the otherwise strong work on display.

John Lindley’s photography is crisp and colorful, bringing Vincent’s small corner of Brooklyn to life and imbuing some potentially saccharine montages with sparkling energy. As Vincent and Oliver traverse stripe clubs and racetracks, we’re left to question the lead’s instincts rather than the filmmakers’, a testament to Lindley, Melfi, and the rest of their creative team. A story that might have been frequently unbelievable isn’t, leaving us to get lost in this world with Vincent and Oliver.

Theodore Melfi’s background in short films proves to be a major asset, with the filmmaker taking a fine-toothed comb to each scene, playing up every line of dialogue and every visual cue to maximum effect. Directors are paid to be big-picture thinkers, but detail-minded ones are often those who shine the brightest and Melfi’s hands-on approach here pays dividends. In the pantheon of archetypal, Grinch-like yarns of a curmudgeon’s heart growing in size, “St. Vincent” is a good one – amusing, dramatic, and light enough on its feet to appeal to a very wide audience.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 10, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Ted Melfi
Screenwriter: Ted Melfi
Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language)