St. Vincent
Directed by Theodore Melfi  
Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher, Naomi Watts
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language
1 hr. 42 min.

Bill Murray became famous when he appeared on screen and just fooled around, as he did in Stripes, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters. Then somewhere in his midlife, Murray grew halfway serious. Roles in Rushmore and Lost in Translation combined his wit with a more moody persona, a man who had deliberately stuck himself to the underbelly of life.

So it comes as no surprise that the gambling, whoring and boozing Vincent in the film St. Vincent recaptures some of Murray’s humor and pathos and gives what would have been a wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve film a bit more weight. Does it match up to some of his best work? Not quite, but it has enough dry wit and drama to keep the viewer engaged.

No one does cruddy better than Murray. Craggy face, dirty house, clothes that are misshapen and mismatched — Murray’s Vincent scowls his way around Brooklyn, slumming in and out of his favorite bar and making numerous trips to Belmont to lose money on the horses.

On the surface, he’s more than down on his luck. He’s already dead and buried, except for his body which moves awkwardly in and out of his car, and the cigarette that constantly bounces in his mumbling mouth.

Then something strange happens. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door. Vincent gets an unwelcome surprise when their movers knock a tree branch off with their truck and damage Vincent’s already dilapidated Chrysler.

In a confrontation with Maggie, Vincent smells opportunity and suggests that he’s willing to be Oliver’s babysitter . . . for a price. Maggie, who is recently divorced, just starting a new job and desperate for childcare, reluctantly agrees.

You can see where this is headed. Naive boy falls under the wing of a shiftless loser. Lots of panic from Mom when she discovers that Vincent and Oliver have been hanging out in bars, betting at the race track and getting acquainted with Vincent’s pregnant lady of the night and girlfriend, Daka (Naomi Watts). Eventually a grudging friendship ensues between Vincent and Oliver and we discover that there’s more to the man than his hedonistic lifestyle.

I told you it’s predictable, but if the writing works (mostly) and the actors know their stuff, you can forgive the film’s weaknesses and appreciate its strengths.

Murray seems to be giving his best effort in a role that in his younger years he might have taken less seriously or avoided altogether. McCarthy is solid as the besieged mother fighting off a child custody battle, working a new job and trying to hold her family together, and Lieberher plays his earnest young boy role with a good deal of subtlety, insight and wit.

The surprise in the film is Watts as the pregnant and very mouthy prostitute Daka. I admit that for me, seeing her in this role was a bit of a stretch, but have patience. She comes through and adds some much needed bite to the story.

Screenwriter and director Theodore Melfi manages to dig a little deeper than you might expect for his coming-of-age premise. His direction seems simple and straightforward, but the story is well-captured and thoughtful, and cheesy ending aside, you might just find yourself (oh, so slowly) being pulled into the heart of the matter.

This is a film about good and evil battling it out. We usually think of this kind of struggle as being more majestic, but in fact, this is the way it all plays out in real life — moment to moment, day to day. In the eyes of both Melfi and Murray, you can’t judge a saint by the cigarette in his mouth and the drink in his hand. As we learn in St. Vincent, the whole story is a saint’s true measure.