ST. VINCENT ***½
Directed by Theodore Melfi.
Bill Murray is a great actor. Today, many would agree with this statement, but when he started making movies, this was not the case. Misfires, such as "Razor's Edge" (1984) and "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980) were offset by popular comedies like "Ghostbusters" (1984) and "Meatballs" (1981). Critics of that time would not have imagined the heights he has achieved since then in "Lost in Translation" and "St. Vincent."
Vincent MacKenna (Murray) is a cantankerous, anti-social person who comes across as kind of an even grouchier Mr. Wilson, of "Dennis the Menace" fame. Fortunately, we learn that this is not to be a one-note character as Vincent's new neighbors, a 12 year old boy named Oliver Bronstein (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) and his mother Maggie (a very good Melissa McCarthy) force him -- through circumstance -- to gradually reveal his true nature. This story works well, but the film isn't perfect.
A subplot involving Terrence Howard as a loan shark, to whom Vincent owes a gambling debt, doesn't go anywhere. However, this side story is neatly disposed of in a well-handled seen later in the picture. Another part of the story that doesn't always seem to fit is the Naomi Watts character, a pregnant stripper/prostitute who has developed a close bond with Vincent. She sports an obvious Russian accent and seems entirely too nice at times, but Watts has fun with the role.
There is a really nicely done scene when Oliver's mom is confronted with his recent misbehavior at the religious school he attends. She begins very formally, but the meeting devolves into a sort of cathartic moment for her as she relates how difficult it has been to keep things together amid a contentious divorce. McCarthy earns the audience's sympathy in a real and affecting way here.
It's Murray's film, though, and his work here is as good as anything he's done. He straddles that line between likable and unlikable like an expert trapeze artist. This helps us to not only accept, but embrace, the final scenes when things all come together and Oliver uses a school project to show Vincent what his life's worth really is. Really a wonderful delight to watch such a pro at the top of his form.