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Review: Bill Murray in full grouchy glory in 'St. Vincent' (w/video)

Bill Murray is a seedy, morally bankrupt guy who ends up taking care of his neighbor, Jaeden Lieberher, in St. Vincent.
Bill Murray is a seedy, morally bankrupt guy who ends up taking care of his neighbor, Jaeden Lieberher, in St. Vincent.
Published Oct. 26, 2014

Contributing to the delinquency of minors in Meatballs is how Bill Murray became a movie star, and can that really be 35 years ago? Time flew while we haven't always had fun, when Murray's actorly instincts took him elsewhere. St. Vincent brings him back, so it's got that going for it, which is nice.

I didn't catch Vincent's last name but it might be Tripper, whose first name I never caught in Meatballs, his lapdog sarcasm turned mangy over the years. Vincent is no saint but the runt he's corrupting for 12 bucks an hour while his mom's at work thinks so. Even a terrible role model is better than none at all.

Writer-director Theodore Melfi isn't mining new territory in his feature film debut, owing as much to W.C. Fields as modern comedies with "Bad" in the title (. . . Santa, Words, Teacher, etc.). But he has Murray in full glorious grouchiness, and an impressive supporting cast working cheap and risky. Melissa McCarthy isn't supposed to be outrageous; Naomi Watts is. That's risky.

Murray seldom engages in such comically scornful screen behavior these days, or so completely carries movies on his slouched shoulders. Vincent is a seedy, surly alcoholic who's overdrawn at the bank and morally bankrupt, engaging the company of a pregnant Russian stripper named Daka (Watts, pressing the "moose-and-squirrel" accent too hard). Vincent is a tough character to care about except for his portrayer's ragged charm.

New neighbors make a bad first impression, their movers damaging Vincent's property although not the ratty picket fence he'll blame them for. Single mother Maggie (McCarthy) and her timid son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) will pay for repairs but Vincent remains antisocial. Maggie's job at a hospital is a grind, Oliver needs a babysitter and Vincent is, well, he's there.

St. Vincent proceeds as expected, with Vincent and Oliver becoming better pals than the old grump will admit, over inappropriate activities for a child to be involved with. We'll discover why Vincent is so bitter, and how he isn't entirely the curmudgeon he appears to be. Melfi sticks to the formula but gets a bit more fizz than usual from the performances.

McCarthy is solid in a subdued role, a smart choice speaking as someone who has lobbied for her to dial back the crazy now and then. Lieberher is your typical movie kid nerd, easily bullied at school yet bold enough to bring a nonplussed Murray expression to Vincent's face. Nice work also from Chris O'Dowd as a chummy priest and Terrence Howard as an impatient bookie.

But this is first and foremost Murray's show, and the shortcomings in Melfi's script and direction are strangely appreciated. They give this singular comedian, who doesn't do it often enough these days, the room to let his buffalo heart roam. St. Vincent is his Cinderella performance, out of nowhere. It's in the hole.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.