Of all the funny ideas in “St. Vincent,” Hollywood would have to freeze over before the Catholic Church agreed to canonize the drinking, gambling, cussing old coot Bill Murray plays in Theodore Melfi’s sweet-and-sour first feature. Even so, this refreshingly unorthodox tragicomedy mounts a pretty convincing case that sometimes role models arrive in disguise — as they do here for the pic’s preteen hero. Murray makes a dream addition to the fast-growing irresponsible-adults subgenre, already plenty crowded with bad grandpas, teachers and Santas, though Melfi’s instinct to find and accentuate the memorable character’s redeeming qualities steers this Oct. 10 Weinstein Co. release from “Bad Babysitter” realm into more solidly commercial heart-tugging territory.
Who but Murray could have played Vincent, a drunken curmudgeon who somehow manages to seem all the more lovable with each poor life decision he makes? Vincent lives alone, except for his grumpy-looking Persian cat Felix, and tolerates the company of precious few, apart from pregnant Russian stripper Daka (Naomi Watts) and a mysterious older woman named Sandy (Donna Mitchell) whom he visits weekly at the retirement home.
He has no kids of his own and wants nothing to do with the little troublemakers, but finds he has no choice after a newly single mom (Melissa McCarthy) and her runty 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door. The notoriously selective Murray has endeared himself to auds in the years since “Lost in Translation” by emerging from grinchy hibernation only when the roles were right (even “Garfield” made a certain amount of sense), which means a part this juicy — which slyly riffs on his offscreen persona — feels like Christmas for his fans.
Here, in all its splendor, is a cinematic character as robust and colorful as “A Confederacy of Dunces’” Ignatius J. Reilly. Vincent splits his time between the bars, the horse track and the strip club where Daka works, running up long tabs at each of those fine establishments. When his harried new neighbor begs him to watch her son after school, he sees no reason why he shouldn’t drag Oliver along on his normal routine, serving as sort of a shitfaced Mr. Miyagi to the kid, who’s getting picked on by the little hellions at his new Catholic school. Instead of showing Oliver “the crane,” Vincent teaches him how to break a bully’s nose, and the next day in dodgeball, the lad puts the lesson to use.
No doubt about it: Vincent’s a bad influence. But the pic’s conceit — and here’s where the pope, who’s found plenty to object to about Hollywood over the years, would beg to differ — is that there are saints among us, if we only look hard enough. After the pic’s well-received Toronto film fest premiere, a misty-eyed Murray revealed he’d had a hunch that the first-time writer-director’s project would work “if we could avoid being schmaltzy,” adding, “We almost did.” These days, auds have grown suspect of sentimentality, which is too bad, really, since being made to feel something is perhaps the best gift movies have to offer.
With “St. Vincent,” the chief pleasure is comedy, which typically arises from waiting to discover what Bill Murray might do next. He’s a brilliant physical comedian, as demonstrated in a bit that begins with Vincent drunkenly backing over his own white-picket fence and builds to a pratfall in his kitchen, resulting in a forehead bandage that completes the character, the way Jack Nicholson’s nose plaster did in “Chinatown.” Melfi’s script — which plays mellower in his hands than it does on the page — deserves credit for the capper: When a moving truck knocks down a tree branch the next morning, Vincent holds his new neighbors accountable for the damage he wrought the night before. (Though the film makes no mention, in order to qualify for sainthood, candidates must be responsible for two miracles. One of Vincent’s might be the fact his fence somehow stood for 20 years in the first place.)
Though “St. Vincent” offers echoes of “Rushmore” — the role that cemented his late-career standing — there’s no sign of rivalry between Vincent and his young protege. The character also falls at the other end of the financial spectrum, $112 overdrawn on his bank account and constantly angling to make a few bucks any way he can, though he’s generous with what little money he does have, paying the kid to mow his dirt patch as a lesson in “how the world works.” As for Oliver, it should be said that Lieberher, while just right for the role, lacks that extra spark Jason Schwarzman brought to Wes Anderson’s pic, where one instantly senses a star in the making.
Still, Murray and the kid have genuine chemistry, and Melfi deserves credit for writing a script that not only spoke to the actor’s sensibilities, but offered so much room for him to personalize the character. Once Murray was attached, the rest of the cast came aboard, rounding out an ensemble that makes the film. Watts can be hit-and-miss with comedy (see “I Heart Huckabees” or “Ellie Parker”), but goes all-in as Daka, juggling the character’s new-mom jitters with a ridiculously thick accent — more consistent than Murray’s odd Brooklyn Irish lilt, which supplies all the backstory we get until quite late in the pic, when Oliver starts investigating Vincent’s life for a school project.
Unusually polished by first-feature standards, the pic was inspired by a similar assignment, given to Melfi’s adopted daughter at Catholic school, in which students were asked to find potential saints in their everyday lives. Here, the usually hilarious Chris O’Dowd plays Oliver’s overly shouty teacher, though for whatever reason, it’s not a particularly comic part. Nor is McCarthy’s Maggie, for that matter (though she can’t resist), giving the actress a chance to play a more relatable maternal concern — even if no mom in her right mind would leave her son in the care of someone like Vincent.
Together, these characters form a kind of surrogate family, with Murray at the head of the table. He’s no saint, however well-articulated the movie’s evidence to the contrary may be, but he’s a much more complex personality than initially meets the eye. Getting to know him feels a little like gaining a window into the actor’s own soul — and what is that if not a ticket to movie heaven.