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Bill Murray relaxes while Jaeden Lieberher mows his lawn in St. Vincent.
Bill Murray relaxes while Jaeden Lieberher mows his lawn in St. Vincent.

Really, St. Vincent isn’t anything new. This working-class dramedy is a modestly budgeted independent film, but it’s the same sort of sentimental tripe that Hollywood would have made into something intolerable 20 years ago. This movie, on the other hand, rises to the level of tolerability and beyond, thanks mostly to the efforts of first-time writer-director Theodore Melfi and a high-powered cast.

The man in the title is Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray), a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, chain-smoking old man in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., who has an unpleasant first meeting with his new next-door neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) after her movers damage his car, a creaky wood-paneled 1983 Chrysler LeBaron. Nevertheless, he’s strapped for cash and senses an opportunity when he finds out that Maggie works long hours at her new job and needs someone to watch her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) after school. Vincent agrees to do it and promptly teaches the undersized Oliver to stand up to his bullies and takes him to bars and the track at Belmont. For this, he charges $11 an hour.

Murray handles the humor in typically fine fashion, though he played middle-aged resignation to better effect in Rushmore and Lost in Translation. It’s the other actors who really carry the movie, starting with the newcomer Lieberher, who holds his own amid a cast filled with Oscar nominees by exhibiting a deadpan sense of humor underneath Oliver’s fearful exterior. As a mom fleeing an imploding marriage, McCarthy finally gets to play vulnerable and overwhelmed instead of brash and blowsy, and she’s gratifyingly understated. Appropriately covered in too much bronzer, Naomi Watts plays a pregnant Russian stripper who moonlights as Vincent’s prostitute. It’s a knockabout slapstick role for an actress not known for such parts, and she’s tartly funny in it, especially in her testy interactions with Vincent’s Persian cat. Chris O’Dowd contributes, too, as an eccentric priest and schoolteacher who reacts to Oliver’s Jewishness: “We celebrate all religions in this classroom. I am a Catholic, which is the best religion, because it has the most rules.”

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The odd one-liner aside, Melfi’s script doesn’t do him many favors. It keeps demanding sympathy for its mean-old-man hero, showing him visiting his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife (Donna Mitchell) in a nursing home and withholding the story about his military service until late in the movie. You can easily predict, too, that his Russian girlfriend will go into labor just as Oliver is preparing to deliver his class presentation making the case for Vincent as a saint. Yet Melfi the director does much to mitigate this by keeping the tone as light and dry as possible. He could do with better material in the future, but right now he makes St. Vincent into a piece of conventional entertainment that you won’t hate yourself for having watched.

 

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St. Vincent

Starring Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher. Written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Rated PG-13.

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