Has Bill Murray turned himself into a puff pastry? In “St. Vincent,” the actor most famous for playing comically unregenerate cynics is playing a gruff, hard-drinking, hard-gambling lout who – here’s the pastry part – becomes a not altogether unwilling mentor to a precocious 12-year-old boy.
Murray’s Vincent may come off like Ebenezer Scrooge, but we all know he’s a secret softy. Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) certainly does. He and his single mom, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, blessedly toned down here), have moved next door, and her long hours as a late-shift nurse leave him untended until the debt-ridden Vincent, demanding $11 an hour, agrees to keep an eye on him. Since Vincent frequents the racetrack and consorts with a pregnant Russian stripper (Naomi Watts, sporting an accent as thick as a bowl of borscht), the boy’s extracurricular activities are decidedly unorthodox. So are his meals. Vincent feeds him sardines out of the can and calls it sushi. If this is the sort of joke that cracks you up, by all means make haste to “St. Vincent.”
We are made to understand, of course, that Vincent’s life lessons are worth more to the boy than the education he is receiving in the local Brooklyn Roman Catholic school where he recently enrolled midterm. (Oliver is Jewish.) He stands up to the class bully, with help from Vincent, who teaches him how to box. Naturally, the bully becomes a best friend to Oliver.
Just in case there was any doubt that Vincent isn’t a true meanie, first-time writer-director Theodore Melfi inserts tender scenes with him paying a mysterious nursing home visit to a woman with dementia who does not recognize him. He also loves his fluffy white cat. And, as Oliver discovers when, as a class project, he has to nominate a living person for sainthood, Vincent was a decorated Vietnam vet who once rescued his platoon and won a Bronze Star. It’s a bit like Tiny Tim finding out Scrooge was a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Schmaltz this thick requires a director who can at least make us feel that our tears are not being shamelessly jerked. But “St. Vincent” is too clunky to hide its tear-slicked tracks. Maybe that’s a good thing. At least that’s more endearing than being worked over by a smooth operator who knows exactly which buttons to press.
But those buttons are pressed just the same. And Murray, who has thus far resisted this sort of thing, falls right in line with it. It’s a truism in the annals of American comedy that our fiercest and most outlandish talents – Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, to name just a few – often can’t resist squishing themselves into the confines of heartwarming pap. Murray is unusual among the comic actors of his generation in that he not only avoided this scenario but also deepened as an actor along the way. He was marvelous in “Lost in Translation” and the underseen “Broken Flowers,” in which his dissolution was soul-deep; he was even terrific as Polonius in Michael Almereyda’s newfangled “Hamlet,” starring Ethan Hawke.
In “St. Vincent,” Murray’s innate orneriness as a performer rescues him from going entirely goopy on us. Or at least that’s what he’s hoping for. He’s trying to have it both ways; he wants us to see him as someone who is too smart for this stuff while, at the same time, in his own belligerent way, he’s just as much the sentimental slob as all those performers to whom he probably holds himself superior. It’s never a good idea for actors to play the anointed. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content and alcohol and tobacco use, and for language.)