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Review: 'St. Vincent' is a war between Bill Murray and a grump-meets-kid movie

In "St. Vincent," Bill Murray attempts to navigate through one of those heartwarmers in which a grouch learns to be less of one after hanging with a kid.

Jaeden Lieberher and Bill Murray dance in a bar in "St. Vincent." Credit: The Weinstein Company Jaeden Lieberher and Bill Murray dance in a bar in "St. Vincent."
Credit: The Weinstein Company

‘St. Vincent’
Director: Theodore Melfi
Stars: Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

“St. Vincent” is both unapologetic and very sorry that it’s one of those movies where a grouchy older man learns to be less of a jerk after spending time with a cute kid. At no point is it even possible it won’t end with an asshole de-assholed. And yet it stars Bill Murray, one of the least sentimental of performers, and it swells its cast with funny performers and its scenes (well, some of them) with decent jokes. It also features lots of stock, tired jokes, like having a perfectly nice kid in a bar or fraternizing with a prostitute. It’s a deeply frustrating movie: Every time you want to hate it, it does something genuinely silly; every time you warm to it, it does something stupid.

The jerk is Murray’s Vincent, a South Brooklyn malcontent. The kid is Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), a bright-eyed innocent living with his mom (Melissa McCarthy), who has just ditched his father (Scott Adsit). She’s a movie single mom, so she's of course bad with managing her time, meaning Oliver becomes a unmonitored latchkey kid after school. Vincent is next door and always home, and he’s soon very reluctantly — for cash — allowing Oliver to sit in his living room, watch Abbott and Costello, field his insults and eat “sushi” (read: sardines on saltines).

It’s not long till these two are bonding, which means going to the neighborhood dive or having Vincent smack around Oliver’s bullies. If that last part sounds familiar, that’s because it was brazenly nicked from “Bad Santa,” the film to which it both aspires to be and from which it runs when it gets remotely close. In “Bad Santa,” Billy Bob Thornton’s soused thief never tried to be loved; the more awful he was the more lovable he became (to the audience, that is).

Vincent, by contrast, is just Bill Murray with a shaky Brooklyn accent. (Murray’s own Chicago twang is all he could ever do, really.) He acts above it all but is prone to not-so-stealth fits of kindness, from aiding a pregnant Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts) to visiting an Alzheimer’s patient to taking in Oliver at all. In fact, Vincent is rarely too dislikable — just fairly disreputable, complete with a barely tended-to mafia subplot seemingly imported from a cheesy ’80s comedy like “Three Men and a Baby.”

And then the film goes and does something genuinely amusing. Director Theodore Melfi rocks a scruffy faux-indie look, but sometimes demonstrates real live-action cartoon chops. A scene with Oliver at Catholic school, being awkwardly integrated by a fumbling priest (Chris O’Dowd) into an as it happens diversely religious classroom, boasts sharp writing and performances. McCarthy proves again that any backlash against her is dumb, doing some fine exasperation and helplessness. Even the kid is good — not a Central Casting mugger but a laidback performer with surprising strength. Then again, funny bits tend to lead into life lessons or pity fests. But then again, on top of that then again, the cheesy climax proves fairly moving — one of those instances where you fight back sniffles despite knowing you’ve been played. Looked at the right way and at the right time, “St. Vincent” can be solid. Other times it shows its true face.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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