If we were going to be curmudgeonly about it -- and "St. Vincent" is, after all, a movie about a curmudgeon -- we'd focus on the one major flaw in the film, and not on its pleasures.
But since those pleasures are so, well, pleasurable, we'll do what Vincent -- he's the curmudgeon, brought wonderfully to life by the singular Bill Murray -- would never do. We'll focus on the positive.
Which is considerable. Who wouldn't want to spend 102 minutes in the company of Murray at his grumpy best -- his eyes in a perpetual roll, annoyed by anyone and everything, but somehow earning affection from those who annoy him? Not that anyone can figure out why. As Daka the pregnant stripper/prostitute, played Naomi Watts with a go-for-broke Russian accent, asks Vincent's young friend Oliver: "WHY you like him?"
First-time director-screenwriter Theodore Melfi, who snagged Murray by first calling the actor's 1-800 number and leaving a voice mail, doesn't give us a lot of backstory about Vincent. But by the end of the opening credits, we know pretty much what we need to. Vincent's a mess. Retired and residing alone in a ramshackle house in Brooklyn, he indulges in booze and gambling -- and pregnant stripper/prostitute Daka. At the bank, he learns his reverse mortgage has run out. He tries to empty his account, but discovers he's overdrawn by $114.
Luckily, a minor source of income is about to present itself. Maggie, a newly single mom (Melissa McCarthy, who charms in a refreshingly sweet and restrained performance) and her son, Oliver, are moving in next door. They meet Vincent, bloodied from a clumsy kitchen fall, when their moving men break his tree branch. "Is that our neighbor?" asks Oliver (the appealing Jaeden Lieberher, precocious but never precious). "It's gonna be a long life."
The initial disgust is mutual, but Vincent needs money, and soon, wouldn't you know it, he's babysitting Oliver every afternoon. This rather strains credulity. Quality babysitters aren't exactly hard to find in Brooklyn, but whatever ... another babysitter would hardly be as entertaining as Murray. Er, Vincent.
Soon, Oliver's learning the ways of the world, Vincent-style. He sits at the neighborhood bar, drinking Coke, as Vincent imbibes. He accompanies Vincent to the racetrack, helping the latter win a trifecta. He even meets Daka the pregnant stripper/prostitute.
Despite these dubious influences, Oliver's confidence grows under Vincent's tutelage. He's a shrimp, so at first, he's bullied at school. "I'm small, if you haven't noticed," the boy says. "Yeah, so was Hitler," Vincent replies. "That's a horrible comparison," the boy rightly responds. But Vincent teaches him to punch, and he breaks the bully's nose at school. Bullying over.
Vincent also brings Oliver along as he visits a lovely elderly lady with Alzheimer's at a nursing home -- a relationship that hints at something deeper in Vincent's life. Gradually, these two get closer, to the point where, when Vincent suffers a serious health setback, Oliver and Maggie (oh, and Daka the pregnant stripper/prostitute) rally to help him recover.
It's only when we reach the final act that the movie falters -- or should we say, falls into an irresistible trap, turning all sappy and sentimental on us. Of course, we knew the redemption was coming -- the movie's title sort of gives it away, doesn't it? -- but the denouement didn't have to be this gooey, not with such a clever and entertaining buildup.
But then there's the post-ending ending, a lovely extended closing credits sequence of Bill Murray just sitting and singing a Dylan song -- "Shelter From the Storm" -- wearing a Walkman and trying like heck to water a potted plant. To fans of Murray's physical comedy, it's a sweet parting gift. Any above-mentioned flaws are hereby forgiven.
"St. Vincent," a Weinstein Company release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America "for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language. " Running time: 102 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.