A brilliant Bill Murray is heaven-sent in St. Vincent

by Mark Burger

Writer/director Theodore Melfi makes an auspicious feature bow with St. Vincent, a heartfelt comedy/drama that takes an admittedly sitcom premise and makes it something deeper and better.

The principal pleasure, without question, is Bill Murray’s performance in the title role. The actor has created a complete character in Vincent MacKenna, a boorish Brooklynite who becomes an unlikely babysitter to Oliver (talented newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), the boy who’s just moved in next door with his recently-divorced mother (Melissa McCarthy).

There’s something lovable under the exterior of a hard-drinking, sarcastic, loutish behavior that Vincent so convincingly and repeatedly exhibits, and it’s the lonely Oliver who immediately gleans onto it “” much to Vincent’s surprise.

There are some detours (perhaps inescapable) into sentimental territory, but never does this compromise “” or, worse, diminish or negate “” the humorous aspects of the story. In addition, Melfi displays a real ear for dialogue and character. McCarthy’s embittered single mother and Naomi Watts’ pregnant Russian stripper/hooker (and Vincent’s occasional bedmate) could easily have been portrayed as farcical caricatures, but Melfi displays a nice touch for knowing when to hold back and not spell out the obvious.

For Murray, this character echoes Art Carney’s Oscarwinning turn in Harry & Tonto (1974) and Walter Matthau’s Oscar-nominated turn in Kotch (1971), as well as a dash of vintage W.C. Fields. Yet the actor brings a distinctive, winning spin to the proceedings. There are those who perceive Murray merely as a funnyman, but he’s incorporated genuine dramatic heft to many of his latter-day roles: his Oscar-nominated performance in Lost in Translation (2003), Rushmore (1999), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), Broken Flowers (2005) and Get Low (2006). These are essentially comedic roles, but Murray has cannily made them into something more “” and in St. Vincent he does so again with smashing results.

It’s one of those annoying yet inevitable year-end declarations that “the Oscar race has begun,” but with regard to Murray’s work in St. Vincent, it’s entirely accurate and justified praise. He’s at his best here.