‘St. Vincent’ Is Warm, Likable, and Worrisome for Bill Murray Fans

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Somewhere around the scene where Vincent takes little Oliver to the racetrack, I realized that Bill Murray was playing the Walter Matthau role, if St. Vincent had been made in the early ‘80s. (Marsha Mason would’ve done the Melissa McCarthy role, by the way. Herb Ross would’ve directed, from Neil Simon’s script. I gave this a lot of thought.) On one hand, I’m fully on board with this metamorphosis, because Vincent is a vintage Matthau curmudgeon — hard drinking, chain-smoking, grouchy and bitter, but a pussycat underneath. On the other, Matthau’s late career is a lesson in how that persona can be declawed and defanged into something cute and cuddly and comparatively uninteresting. That’s not what happens in St. Vincent, which is a lovely little movie with a lot of laughs and a good heart. But it’s a warning signal for a direction Murray’s career could take, if he’s not careful.

He plays the title character, an alcoholic gambler who lives a life of solitude in Sheepsheads Bay, Brooklyn. He doesn’t exactly hit it off with his new neighbors, a recent divorcee (McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), but when the long hours of her new job mean Oliver needs a babysitter, the perpetually broke Vince sees a business opportunity. He and the kid have more in common than you might think, as is driven home by an early sequence intercutting their days; they’re both bad-lucked misfits, almost a before-and-after picture. But their interactions end up making them into better (and better-adjusted) people, and they forge a father/son relationship that benefits both.

This all unfolds in a manner that’s mighty formulaic, but who’re we kidding — no one’s seeing St. Vincent for its narrative innovations. This is a Bill Murray Picture, and it’s full of opportunities for him to do his thing, from a full-hearted dance to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” early on to a closing credit sing-along of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” that’s more incentive to sit through a movie’s end than any Marvel teaser. It’s a funny, heartfelt performance, and he’s not just going through the paces either; with his block-specific accent and odd little shuffle, it’s a character turn, and a good one.

That said, the best news here is how wonderful Melissa McCarthy is. Ms. McCarthy’s fallen into a bit of a rut, in recent films like Identity Thief and Tammy , her terrific turn in Bridesmaids seemingly translating into a formula of broad comedy, dumb pratfalls, and clumsy plays for sympathy. Her work here is much closer to the vest — she grounds the character with genuineness and honesty, particularly in a wonderful scene where she lays out all of her troubles at a school conference, playing the emotional truth. And then, when she gets the laugh at the end of it, she doesn’t push; it’s earned, and it comes to her, rather than the other way around. This is the first thing she’s done in a good long while that reminded me of Sookie on Gilmore Girls, the role where so many of us first realized what a special performer she is, when she’s not trapped in material that doesn’t understand what makes her great.

Writer-director Theodore Melfi (directing his first feature) has a good eye for composition — his specialty is a well-framed overhead shot, which he trots out a few times, but not too many — and he maintains a brisk pace, though the picture’s turn towards the melancholy is awfully abrupt, and too clumsily telegraphed by Theodore Shapiro’s score. And the big tearjerker ending is maudlin and manipulative, which would be a bigger problem if it didn’t totally get me anyway, sniff sniff. In that sequence, and throughout the movie, Murray elevates the material — but the scene itself is a bit worrisome, since it is, in essence, a celebration of Bill Murray, and that kind of pandering isn’t what we like about him, as a personality or an actor.

His Wes Anderson-fueled comeback was, in fact, necessitated by would-be mid-‘90s crowd-pleasers like The Man Who Knew Too Little and Larger than Life (aka the elephant movie). What made his introverted work in Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, and Lost in Translation so appealing was that it didn’t seem like he cared much if we liked him, or his characters. And maybe that’s why the Walter Matthau comparison seems so apt — one moment you’re doing The Bad News Bears and Hopscotch, but if you’re not careful, you could end up in a Dennis the Menace.

St. Vincent is out Friday.