By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Sainthood we can talk about later. For now, there’s more than enough of Bill Murray’s devilishly shaggy charm and cranky wit in St. Vincent to please movie audiences.
Murray plays Vincent Canatella, a 68-year-old misanthrope who lives modestly in a dilapidated row house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay with his Persian cat.
Melissa McCarthy plays Maggie, a single mother who moves into the house next door with her diminutive and sensitive 12-year-old son, Oliver, played by Jaeden Lieberher, who is bothered and bullied at his Catholic school.
Stressed out by the demands of the divorce she’s going through, the new digs, and her new job as a CAT scan technologist at a hospital, and worried she could lose custody of her son, she hires her dyspeptic, embittered, irresponsible neighbor to watch Oliver on weekdays after school.
Reluctant but needing the money, grouchy Vincent agrees to the arrangement.
But Vincent has a few habits Maggie isn’t yet aware of: he gambles, he drinks, he smokes, he owes money to loan sharks, and he frequents prostitutes.
Not that there’s anything wrong with –… well, wait, for a babysitter, maybe there is.
Let’s put it this way: for impressionable Oliver, time spent with Vincent -– some of it in bars or at the racetrack — will not be the equivalent of Sunday school.
Oliver is optimism incarnate, while Vincent breathes sour pessimism. But Oliver just might get the chance to grow up a little and will perhaps bring at least a smidgen of joy to Vincent’s messy, downbeat life.
Meanwhile, the implication of the film’s title will become clearer as the narrative proceeds.
Debuting writer-director Theodore Melfi, a producer and commercial director, has the benefit of a superior supporting cast that includes Chris O’Dowd as a friendly priest at Oliver’s school; Terrence Howard as a not-so-friendly debt collector; and Naomi Watts as Vincent’s Russian girlfriend, a pregnant prostitute.
Melfi gives us an amusing setup and a number of funny moments along the way while generating plot strands he has no intention of resolving or following through on. And he steps down a bit too strenuously on the feel-good pedal and turn overly sentimental in the late going. But by then we’ve moved in next door and are not going anywhere.
Although Murray isn’t exactly stretching, he handles the comedic and dramatic demands of his lead role with effortless command, reminding us of his unforgettably iconic work and consummate comic timing in Groundhog Day, Tootsie, What About Bob?, Ghostbusters, Rushmore, and Lost in Translation.
And Melfi seems intent on showcasing the Murray we have long since been familiar with and that still works, but in a way that pretty much rules out the element of surprise, which is certainly not the worst quality for a movie to lack.
McCarthy, under-the-top for a change, gets to display a bit of range and play a much more persuasively real character than has been her caricature-embracing wont in Identity Thief, The Heat, and Tammy, and demonstrates vividly that she can play also play drama.
And, most memorably and spectacularly, young Lieberher, a real find in his first role, delivers one of the best child-actor debut performances that the movies have seen in years. You’ll be hearing from and seeing this kid for years to come.
It’s ultimately the natural comedic rapport between Murray and Lieberher that puts the Saint in St. Vincent, a film that doesn’t reinvent the wheel (or the heel) but that sure is fun to watch.
You know what you’re getting in this comedy, but at least you do actually get it.
So we’ll babysit 2½ stars out of 4 for the largely likable St. Vincent, in which the title character gets to eat, drink, and be Murray.