Not your average after-school babysitter.
Although playing the unabashed curmudgeon next door is the kind of thing Bill Murray could do in his sleep, the treasured actor brings everything he has to the role of Vincent MacKenna in St. Vincent. In fact, all the actors in this film are at their best in this crowd-pleasing comedy. They keep the story buoyant, even when it sails through some sappy waters. The sap perhaps compensates for St. Vincent's darker edges, which frame the film to an extent uncommon for a comedy.
A boozer, smoker and gambler, Vincent is always angling for some extra bucks. Though he glides eccentrically through life, he is well liked by almost everyone, except his bartender and his bookie. I imagine that many of Murray's fans see a resemblance between the actor and his character. Yet Murray drills down into the role, finding the soul at the heart of the caricature. The story accelerates when a woman named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), move into the house next door in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
Oliver is a puny kid who is bullied by the kids at his new school. It's a parochial school where the saints are still studied under the jocular yet firm guidance of his teacher (Chris O'Dowd). A newly single mom, Maggie works late hours, and the grouch next door quickly becomes Oliver's after-school babysitter (for pay, of course). Among other things, Vincent teaches Oliver some self-defense moves, and takes him to the track and a bar. He also lets the boy hang out with Daka (Naomi Watts), his pregnant, pole-dancing, thickly Russian-accented girlfriend and lady of the evening.
Newcomer Lieberher is a great foil for Murray, often calling Vincent "sir" and never devolving into cute, childlike maneuvers. McCarthy, for a change, plays a straightforward character instead of clown, and the shift pays off beautifully. Watts, who hasn't always scored well with comedy, is quite funny as the over-the-top Daka. First-time feature writer and director Theodore Melfi appears to have a nice way with actors, and he should be able to continue on this path as long as he doesn't veer too far toward cynicism or schmaltz.
If you scratch the surface too deeply, a few aspects of St. Vincent might not ring true, but there's no greater pleasure than watching the film's opening and closing sequences. Murray, alone on the screen, dances and then sings along to the music coming through his headphones, unaffected by the world around him.