For all the boozed and abusive amusement provided by the great Bill Murray in the good-enough “St. Vincent,” the moment I liked best was Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper, manhandling a vacuum across the Murray character’s ancient carpet. In movies as in life, it’s the little things.
In another scene, the alcoholic, misanthropic Vietnam vet played by Murray is locking horns with a snippy young teller at his bank. In frustration Murray thunks his forehead against the glass. Two seconds in length, scripted or improvised, it’s the sort of punctuation any comedy needs.
Plenty in writer-director Theodore Melfi’s slick feature debut can be accused of overstatement and rib-elbowing. The broader visual comedy lacks finesse. But the actors win out. Even “St. Vincent’s” climactic, full-on yank at our heartstrings can be forgiven because, well, Murray’s in it. And his co-stars likewise know exactly what they’re doing every second.
Melfi’s film is less slapsticky than its trailers suggest. In a corner of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, N.Y., miraculously denuded of hipsters, Vincent lives a small life, racking up gambling debts, drinking too much, regretting his actions even as they’re happening. Then newly single Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, plainly relieved not to be playing a shrill caricature) moves in next to Vincent with her preternaturally wise and mature 12-year-old, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie needs child care; Vincent says he’ll do it for $11 an hour; the rest of “St. Vincent” is taken up with the Murray character’s notions of effective mentoring, which involve the horses, the bloody vanquishing of neighborhood bullies and an unlikely friend or two.
There’s a sweetness to the relationships, whether you believe those relationships or not. Watts’ character, a sometime call girl, has a grudging affection for Vincent. Chris O’Dowd as one of young Oliver’s Catholic school instructors may be overqualified for this supporting role, but his blithe charisma lightens each of his scenes.
Melfi’s training in commercials comes through in “St. Vincent.” His montages are designed for shorthand storytelling, and this is determinedly mainstream commercial comedy, albeit commercial comedy with a strong undertow of sadness. However shrewdly handled by Murray, the scenes in which Vincent visits his Alzheimer’s-addled wife in a retirement facility nudges the material into darker territory. You may suffer whiplash from the more extreme of these switcheroos.
And yet, at this point in the 21st century we may as well declare Murray our national person, or president for life, or something. His comic and dramatic technique has mellowed into mastery. The sadness behind his eyes is there, even at his most antic, and it’s this forlorn quality that makes Vincent seem like a person, as opposed to a screenplay pitch. Murray has been the life of so many parties in the movies, the burden may have worn him down a little.
Yet it’s been useful for his acting, which doesn’t seem like acting at all. If we’re lucky we’ll soon see Murray granted a role as wonderful as he is. Meantime “St. Vincent” will do.
“ST. VINCENT,” starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher. Written and directed by Ted Melfi. A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG-13 for profanity and mature thematic material, including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use. Running time: 1:42