St. Vincent Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy. Directed by Theodore Melfi. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Heartwarming movies about grumpy adults who bond with precocious little kids are so ubiquitous and predictable that they’ve inspired a tiny subgenre dedicated to subverting them; notable examples include Bad Santa and 2008’s little-seen (but superb) Julia, starring Tilda Swinton. St. Vincent initially looks as if it might be one of these takedowns—after all, the famously irreverent Bill Murray plays the title role—but soon reveals itself as precisely the sort of formulaic schmaltz-fest they were designed to ridicule. All the same, Murray doesn’t play many lead roles these days, preferring to take smaller supporting parts (mostly in Wes Anderson films), so an opportunity to see him front and center at length is not to be dismissed.
Certainly, writer-director Theodore Melfi (who’s previously worked mostly as a producer) makes a strenuous effort to create a thoroughly dissolute hero in the Bad Santa vein. Vincent drinks heavily, swears like a sailor and is such a compulsive gambler that he’s heavily in debt to a loan shark played by Terrence Howard. Consequently, he’s in no position to refuse when a new next-door neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) offers him a job babysitting her young son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), who badly needs a dose of self-confidence and some advice on how to deal with school bullies. Vincent provides both, along with a tour of his favorite places: the racetrack, the local dive bar and other decidedly adult-oriented locales.
Though hampered somewhat by a shaky Brooklyn accent (the film is set in Sheepshead Bay), Murray has a lot of fun with Vincent’s over-the-top irresponsibility, making the character a more desperate variation on the fun-loving goofball he now plays in real life when he’s out in public. Unfortunately, Melfi surrounds him with caricatures—the most ludicrous being Vincent’s sort-of girlfriend, a pregnant Russian stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold (Naomi Watts, of all people)—and gradually pushes the movie in a truly maudlin direction, revealing sobering details about Vincent’s past that don’t complicate the man so much as just defang him.
Even the film’s title, with its apparently ironic sanctification of Vincent the ne’er-do-well, turns out in the end to be something pretty close to literal. Murray is deft enough to sink only hip-deep into the syrup, rather than neck-deep, but given that he’s taken on only two other lead roles over the past decade (in Broken Flowers and Hyde Park on Hudson), it’s dispiriting to see him wasting his energy on forgettable fluff.