St. Vincent tells a rather familiar cinematic tale: The grumpy old shut-in befriends a plucky young kid, and as unlikely as their pairing seems at first, they both end up teaching each other a little something about life. Only St. Vincent opens with said old man getting it on with a pregnant foreign prostitute. That may be a clue that this dark comedy isn't the archetypal paint-by-numbers, feel-good story.
Bill Murray stars as the titular Vincent, a broke, alcoholic, degenerate, curmudgeonly gambler with a crude Brooklyn accent who frequently employs the services of the aforementioned lady of the night, Daka (Naomi Watts with a bold Eastern Bloc accent). When new neighbors show up in the form of single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her scrawny son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), Vincent sees them as another thorn in the side of his crummy life. But when Maggie has to work extra hours at her nursing job, Vincent manages to becomes Oliver's de facto babysitter for the right price. In cinematic fashion, the pair slowly warms to each other as Vincent shows Oliver the ways of the world in his unconventional manner (certainly more Bad Santa than Up).
Writer/director Theodore Melfi's script doesn't shy away from getting a little twisted, but most of St. Vincent's success comes from letting Murray do his thing. He revels in playing up all of Vincent's crooked mannerisms, crushing lows, gleeful highs and nonsensical non sequiturs (though watering a dirt yard is an apt metaphor for Vincent's existence). When the movie reaches its tender moments, Murray is able to hit the right emotional chord without shifting the character. There may be a reason to partially explain his attitude, but at his core he's still a jerk.
Lieberher holds his own when tasked with playing opposite Murray, providing the right balance of timidity, optimism and stern defiance when needed. McCarthy feels natural in the fairly straight role of Oliver's overworked mother, and it's refreshing to see her in a part that doesn't rely on absurd physical humor. Apart from Murray, the laughs mostly come from Watts' outlandish but big-hearted hooker and Chris O'Dowd as Oliver's droll Catholic school teacher.
While St. Vincent softens the edge of its black comedy in favor of sentimentality as it nears a conclusion, it doesn't venture too far and become pure saccharine. The movie, like Vincent, is messily heartwarming. ♦