Here's how good an actor Bill Murray is. He does such a bristly, entertaining turn as a boozy curmudgeon in St. Vincent, that he saves first-time director Theodore Melfi's obvious dramedy from sliding into a burbling sinkhole of schmaltz.
As long as Murray's on the screen, with unpredictable mischief brewing behind that deadpan mug, St. Vincent maintains the expectation of fun, even when the pathos and redemption start getting in the way.
Melfi's script jauntily stacks the deck: Vincent McKenna (Murray) is a least-likely candidate for canonization, a Brooklyn barfly and compulsive gambler, indebted to a loan shark and who has sex with his pregnant prostitute/stripper on credit.
Then, one Road to Damascus-like morning, Vincent wakes up on his kitchen floor and opportunity knocks, by almost knocking his house down. His new neighbours' moving truck is crashing into his front yard. A large branch crashes onto his his vintage wood-panelled Chrysler convertible. The neighbours are single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her spindly 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). The neighbours do not like each other. Then, a convenient couple of scenes later, Maggie discovers she is forced to work late at her new job as a medical technician and persuades Vincent to babysit the kid for $12 an hour.
McCarthy, as the struggling single mom, plays a relatively gentle, emotionally conflicted character, leaving all her usual sarcastic aggression to Murray, which is a welcome change of pace. On the downside, Maggie's character is undermined by the script's indifference to certain economic improbabilities. She gets no child support from her husband but has enrolled Oliver in St. Patrick's, an expensive Catholic private school. And now she chooses to spend her money leaving her 12-year-old with a belligerent drunk.
Oliver's childhood innocence meets Vincent's adult debauchery with usual queasily funny results. Vincent takes Oliver to bars for dinner, to the track for entertainment and introduces him to his Russian prostitute girlfriend Daka (Naomi Watts, a bit too cartoonish). When Vincent's not getting sloshed, he reveals his more noble side. He's a Vietnam vet, and he visits an elder-care facility to see an elegantly radiant woman (Donna Mitchell) who thinks he's her doctor. He even teaches Oliver how to confront the school bully.
Murray, as expected, delivers each eye roll and side-of-mouth remark with precise torque. And child actor Leiberher, as Oliver, is solid, precocious, but on the tolerable side of cloying. As an odd-couple buddy comedy, St. Vincent works decently, though as the movie's title suggests, it has grander ambitions. Early in the film, Oliver's teacher, the boisterous, shouty Brother Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd), assigns his students a project called, "Saints Among Us" in which they are expected to promote someone they know as worthy of sainthood.
As intended, St. Vincent is no conventional hagiography but it's the movie world's equivalent – a star vehicle. Give director Melfi credit for knowing the capacity of the engine he has under its hood. St. Vincent is bookended with two different kinds of Bill Murray comic scenes. The first, which opens the film, is a well-told traditional joke, delivered at a bar, by Vincent in his Brooklyn Irish lilt. In the final scene, he doesn't talk at all, but the stationary camera studies Murray in his paradoxical ungainly grace. Those two scenes may not earn the case for canonization, but they almost exonerate the parts of St. Vincent that stray from the righteous path.