Bill Murray is something of a comic institution. He wasn't among the first “Saturday Night Live” cast members (he replaced Chevy Chase, coming on in the second season), but he did become one of the most popular. And unlike some SNL alumni (Chase, for example), Murray has enjoyed a varied movie career — scoring in blockbusters (“Ghostbusters”) and art films (“Lost in Translation”).
But … he can't do everything. He can't, for example, save a movie such as “St. Vincent,” which suffers from both a lack of originality and a fair bit of shallowness. Despite the presence of Murray and others, including Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts, “St. Vincent” is … well, let the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio explain:
One of the oldest plotlines in Hollywood history involves irascible men who bond with – and who are mellowed by – children. From the animated feature “Up” to Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” from “The Bad New Bears” to “The Karate Kid,” such films bear storylines that follow a typical formula.
One, the grump and the kid meet cute. Two, though thrown together by circumstance, they soon discover some sort of common ground. Three, they get closer, often by breaking the rules. Four, some sort of difficulty inevitably arises. And five, in resolving said difficulty, intimacy is developed and lessons are learned. Wax on, wax off. You get the idea.
Now comes “St. Vincent,” a film written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Theodore Melfi, which has comic god Bill Murray playing the grump and talented newcomer Jaeden Lieberher playing the kid next door. Pretty much everything else is … you know, predictable.
Murray plays the title character, a guy who spends his days either betting on the horses or snuggling a pregnant prostitute (Naomi Watts). Vincent is overdrawn at the bank, in debt to his bookie and has no problem driving drunk. Then one night, after crashing into his fence – and doing an unfunny Three Stooges pratfall in his kitchen – he awakens to find his car smashed by a tree limb dislodged by a pair of movers. This is how he meets his new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 10-year-old son Oliver.
Seeing an opportunity, Vincent demands that Maggie reimburse him. Before long, Maggie – through desperation – recruits Vincent to watch Oliver after school. For ready cash, of course. And soon the two are off to the races. Literally. And the rest of the traditional formula follows, even to the point where Oliver – preparing a school report on identifying Saints who live among us – discovers, naturally enough, that underneath his boorish exterior Vincent is a pretty nice guy.
All of this would be just too much to take – for the 377th time – were it not for the cast that writer-director Melfi managed to snare. Pre-teen Lieberher is quite good in the kind of role played by everyone from Jackie Coogan to Tatum O’Neal. McCarthy, for once, actually creates an empathetic character out of her single mom facing the trials of divorce. And Irish actor Chris O’Dowd plays a thoughtful priest and teacher with a wry sense of humor. Terence Howard shows up briefly, but only Watts feels miscast, her Russian accent as fake as her rubber belly.
Murray, as usual, does less acting than impersonating the kind of character he crafted during his days on “Saturday Night Live” and perfected working for filmmakers as contemporarily cool as Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. The ever-present wink – or smirk – he wears lets us know that he’s in on the larger joke, whatever it is. It’s an affectation that amplifies his performance even as it limits his ability to do much more than hint at something deeper.
Fortunately for the movie “St. Vincent,” neither depth nor originality is required.