It’s been more than a decade since Lost in Translation. Save for a splendid cameo as himself in Zombieland (2009), Bill Murray hasn’t come close to matching the weary joy of that performance, the essential Bill Murrayness of it. St Vincent gives him a shot at last.
This Brooklyn-set comedy-drama is about a Vietnam vet with every Scroogian characteristic writer-director Theodore Melfi can possibly ascribe to him. Murray’s Vincent is stubborn, curmudgeonly, misanthropic, grasping, rude and belligerent. He wears a pair of cargo shorts which were probably last washed in the 1980s. He chain-smokes, gambles, goes out drinking with dangerous frequency for a man of his age, and pays a Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts gyyeeeving comical accent) for sex.
Next door to this toxic waster moves a well-meaning divorced mother called Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) with her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), who isn’t quite an orphan, but nonetheless ticks some neo-Dickensian boxes as the meek, neglected lad needing a father figure. He’s bullied at school. This sets up the film’s most predictable scene, when Murray’s Vincent – who becomes a kind of grudging manny when Maggie’s working late – steps in to give the bullies a taste of their own medicine, principally by threatening violence against their mothers.
The film toggles back and forth in a sitcom sort of way between the sequences where things are working out well – quirkily, unconventionally, but well – and the ones where Vincent blows these new relationships by being a selfish nutcase. His secret heart of gold plays hide and seek, but we know it’s there.
Melfi’s film has a scrimpy budget, but one eye is trained beadily on a crossover audience – it’s essentially a formulaic crowd-pleaser in indie drag. It’s refreshing to see McCarthy in a soft, straight part where she doesn’t have to barge around the place like a bull in a china shop. Still, Murray’s the draw here, and the film’s best moments let him sink deeply into a role as snug, comfortable and hard to resist as a favourite tatty armchair.
There’s a heart-tugging payoff of shameless public appreciation for him. But you would trade it in for the end credits, which play out over a single shot of Vincent with a Walkman in his back yard, doing a spot of lazily seated gardening while he smokes and half-mumbles, half-sings his way through Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm’. It’s such a casually transfixing demonstration of Bill Murrayness you may not notice a single name that’s scrolling up the screen.