Bill Murray plays Vincent, the titular lout in the new comedy “St. Vincent,” as a throwback sort of aging American white male. Murray was born in 1950, so Vincent is approaching what ought to be retirement age — and yet he seems to work less than he does fritter his few greenbacks at the race track, guzzle handles of bourbon and whittle away sad afternoons at the strip club watching his girlfriend-for-pay (Naomi Watts plus a distracting Russian accent) waggle her baby bump against a chrome pole. The why-bother beard grizzle, the cigarette held in the lips even during conversations, the snow-camo cargo shorts: All point to a man who has no reason to be anything other than what he is in the moment, for while the future has yet to be written, “Wheel of Fortune” is probably on somewhere right now, and what better to lull you into a sweet recliner nap?
A character such as this needs a foil, and it arrives as Oliver (charming newbie Jaeden Lieberher), a bright-eyed stringbean who moves in next door. Oliver’s parents are splitting up, and his mother Maggie (a subdued Melissa McCarthy) works constantly to keep orange juice on the table and Oliver in private school. So Vincent steps up and charges her $11 an hour to tolerate the kid after school, not least because he needs the cash. Oliver’s a genuinely sweet boy with trouble shadowing him, now being babysat by a curmudgeon who’s not above stealing and re-selling prescription pills. It’s like a south Brooklyn “Dennis the Menace,” through a cracked whiskey bottle.
Screenwriter and first-time director Theodore Melfi hits a lot of notes correctly to make “St. Vincent” a genuinely funny movie. Murray’s fantastic, quiet, believable. He wears his years hard on his face. (Even after his indie turn, it’s still strange to get through an entire movie without seeing Bill Murray smile more than a time or two.) Wide-release comedies tend to forget how much comedic gold there is in pain, and when Melfi introduces, say, alcoholism or prostitution or dementia or maladies or assault or poverty or despair or death, he’s drawing laughs out of the hurt, but he’s also telling a believable story about living in America today, specifically what it’s like for old people without families or means of support. Frankly, it sucks. Vincent’s warped life wouldn’t seem as funny if it weren’t heartbreaking — if, for instance, it were a life he seemed to want to live.
It’s a shame that “St. Vincent” doesn’t stick to its guns. By the third act the excellent juggling of sympathy and pathos caramelizes into something sugary-sweet, as if Melfi went to the bar for a round of Irish car bombs and came back instead with mimosas. The saint angle gets ratcheted up a bit too tight, for one, even if it is charming ol’ Chris O’Dowd playing the Catholic school teacher who assigns Oliver and his classmates to examine the world around them for people doing saintly works. (Guess whom he picks?)
To the credit of Murray and of Melfi, at least Vincent doesn’t really seem to care when the generally surly people around him begin noticing his hidden heart of precious metal. Six years after the economy cratered, there are a lot of Vincents scattered around America, unemployed, unemployable, doing their ever-smaller part to stay relevant to the world. To pull comedy out of this tragedy means appreciating the small victories. They are small, but then, they are victories.