Even before Bill Murray appears onscreen in Theodore Melfi’s directorial debut “St. Vincent,” his performance is a dare. Donning a thick Brooklyn accent as he delivers a cheesy joke while under the influence, Murray’s smarmy, alcoholic character Vincent de Van Nuys derives some of his vulgar appeal from the actor playing him. But even while “St. Vincent” marks the actor’s first comedic role in a number of years, it’s also a clear-cut stab at showing off his acting chops with a different sort of sad loner than other late-period Murray turns.
It’s fascinating to watch Murray act circles around his existing appeal and play into it at the same time. Melfi’s likable but utterly formulaic movie never rises to a similar level of ambition, which in this case actually works in its favor. It gives Murray room to play.
A sappier “Gran Torino,” the story finds disgruntled war veteran Vincent living out his impoverished days in Sheepshead Bay, dividing time between visiting his alzeheimer-addled wife and cozying up with the pregnant stripper Daka (Naomi Watts) who’s carrying his baby. Into this messy dynamic arrives 12-year-old Oliver (Jaden Lieberher), the son of single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), who moves in next door. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Maggie accidentally destroys Vincent’s tree, leading him to unleash a torrent of insults at the befuddled woman (McCarthy, playing it straight, just goes with it).
Before long, however, the money-starved Vincent has agreed to babysit Oliver while his mother works long hours at the hospital, and reluctantly takes the boy under his wing. Trouble ensues as Vincent, relying on gambling debts to get by, takes Oliver to the races and teaches him how to demolish his bullies. That provides Murray with the excuse for a series of racy monologues and bursts of physical comedy, all under the expectations of a feel-good finale where everyone receives a lesson in responsibility.
Indeed, the ensuing sentimental arc involves your usual man-child bonding arc in which both sides of the equation learn to face life’s heaviest challenges head-on. But it often works around its conventions with amusing asides, starting with one sequence that finds Murray dancing around his kitchen in a drunken fervor to the tune of “Somebody to Love” and following it up with countless other goofy moments. It’s endearing to watch the actor unleash his comedic sensibilities on material that doesn’t ask too much of him. When the movie arrives at its inevitable big scenes, where the character must confront his emotions, Melfi’s screenplay doesn’t overstate them and instead cedes control to Murray’s surprisingly tender delivery.
However, the filmmaker still populates his story with a few too many pop-scored montages of Vincent and Oliver bonding sessions as they playfully race wheelchairs and drive around town. Even then, the young Lieberher holds his own against the legendary actor, deriving some comedic appeal from his innocent perspective on Vincent’s self-destructive lifestyle. Only Watts, in the underwritten role of a Russian-accented “lady of the night,” veers into the unseemly waters of a thin caricature. Mainly, she seems to function as just one more way of fleshing out Vincent’s reckless existence, a concept that endows the movie with a single, prolonged punchline even when it tries to play things straight.
The rest of the movie lacks the same appeal. Scenes featuring Oliver in class at an unorthodox multi-faith school, headed by a surprisingly open-minded priest (Chris O’Dowd), strain from half-baked exchanges. A medical emergency that arrives late in the story threatens to derail the entire enterprise, asking more of Murray than even he may be able to deliver. Fortunately, it doubles back to its original trajectory and lets the actor regain control.
As a whole, “St. Vincent” follows so many familiar beats that it would be forgettable without the numerous asides that Murray brings to life. The humor and the tragedy of his character often unfold in a single package. (“Are you drinking alcohol?” Oliver asks Vincent while on break from housework. “I honestly don’t remember,” comes the reply.)
From the moment that Murray saves Oliver from a horde of mean-spirited classmates, “St. Vincent” offers few surprises, and when Oliver gets a class assignment to write about a saintly figure in his life, there’s no question who he’ll pick. The events in “St. Vincent” underwhelm just enough for Murray to rise above them. By saving the day, he also saves the picture.
A version of this review ran during the Toronto International Film Festival. “St. Vincent” opens in limited release on Friday.