‘St. Vincent’: A perfectly cast Bill Murray, lost in libations

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Bill Murray’s best movies are “Groundhog Day,” “Lost in Translation” and “Broken Flowers,” in that order, and while “St. Vincent” doesn’t crack the Murray Top Three for me, it’s a prime showcase for his skill set.

If “St. Vincent” writer-director Ted Melfi hadn’t somehow landed the notoriously elusive Murray for the lead, this film easily could have slipped from sentimental to mawkish, from heartwarming to shamelessly corny.

As it is, we pretty much know where this movie is headed from the moment a newly single mother (Melissa McCarthy) and her precocious and charmingly nerdy 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move to Brooklyn and find themselves next door to the grizzled, chain-smoking, gambler/drinker/professional ass—- Vincent.

This guy’s such a mess he’s usually bleeding or bandaged from some drinking-related injury. The only person he seems to care about is a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka, and kudos to Naomi Watts for giving this hooker with a heart of gold an accent just this shy of Natasha Fatale from “The Bullwinkle Show.”

Much of this territory has been covered in films such as “Bad Santa”: nasty curmudgeon gets stuck watching kid who refuses to be cowed by nasty curmudgeon’s bark, and over the course of many adventures in which convention is thrown out the window, laws are bent and setbacks are sustained, a bond is forged and …

Well. You know the rest. What do you expect, a movie in which the old cuss is charged with child endangerment and the mom and the little dude move away?

Set mostly in Brooklyn, “St. Vincent” is the kind of movie where there seems to be just the one bar where Vincent hangs, and the same people are in the same seats at the tavern no matter the time of day or night. (In an early scene, Melfi tips his hand about his intentions to make a sentimental movie that always feels like a movie when Vincent blasts the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” on the jukebox and engages in a blissful solo dance. Aw, Vincent wants somebody to love. (Also, maybe he was in Vietnam?)

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It’s nice to see Melissa McCarthy playing a role where she doesn’t have to roll around in mud or wrestle somebody. She’s mostly a straight woman to Murray’s antics. McCarthy’s Maggie is an MRI technician who has to pick up as many shifts as possible, and with nowhere else to turn, she asks the terminally unemployed Vincent if he’ll watch the kid. (If Maggie turns to Craigslist or a babysitting service, we don’t have a movie.)

Sure, says Vincent. I’ll watch the kid. For 12 bucks an hour, and the rate goes up if Maggie has to work late.

Cue the adventures of Vincent and Oliver, involving all sorts of clichés, including school bullies; a Catholic priest (Chris O’Dowd); a menacing bookie (Terrence Howard) threatening Vincent’s health, and don’t forget the pregnant Daka, who wobbles around on her high heels and spouts one-liners in her ridiculous accent.

Nearly every scene is contrived, but Melfi has a nice way with dialogue, and the cast is uniformly outstanding. Murray of course is in his comfort zone playing an oversized version of Bill Murray (“I play myself,” he told Howard Stern in a recent interview), but he’s so great at playing Bill Murray. The little physical bits, the offhand way of delivering a sly one-liner, the perfectly executed roll of the eyes or semi-smirk. He has the expressiveness of a silent film star.

The adult supporting players are all excellent, but next to Murray, the key casting is Jaeden Lieberher as young Oliver. The kid is a natural in the sidekick role, never once playing it too cute or too actor-y.

Will Murray win an Oscar for “St. Vincent?” Probably not. The role might be too light to win over the Academy. A Golden Globe is more likely, given that goofy “musical or comedy” category they have.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

The Weinstein Co. presents a film written and directed by Ted Melfi. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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