Bill Murray, Naomi Watts and Melissa McCarthy turn in performances that resonate convincingly in a film that never did the kind of popular business it deserved to do merely because it includes no super-hero characters or thundering explosions.
The quiet ones, with a few exceptions, rarely do.
Murray is charming, authentic and funny as the dysfunctional older man in New Jersey who meets almost-as-dysfunctional McCarthy, a single mom in the middle of a divorce, accompanied by her 8-year-old son.
She’s got too many balls in the air, her son desperately lacks any kind of father figure for guidance (he’s the new Jewish kid in the local Catholic parochial school) and Murray sees a slightly golden opportunity to make a little pocket money for booze and cigs by watching the boy after school.
Cue the mutually transformational episodes.
Murray basically drags the boy along through various defining scenes in his dissolute lifestyle.
His charge accompanies him to the racetrack, to the local bar and eventually befriends his erstwhile lady friend: a Russian-born stripper and prostitute (another winning portrayal by Naomi Watts, by the way).
There’s a school bully who gets his comeuppance and becomes the boy’s friend. The sequence in which the boy helps Murray score big by successfully intuiting a Trifecta at the track is enough to make you cheer even as you may be shaking your head in bewilderment.
The boy gradually gets Murray to see the world from beyond his own self-centered view and then makes him the focus of a school essay that – predictably enough – becomes a contest winner in a school competition.
The screenplay certainly plays to Murray’s best strengths (not to mention McCarthy’s) and the bittersweet nature of the episodes ensures that the story never veers too sharply in one direction or another.
Has Bill Murray been down this route before? Absolutely he has. But has he ever been quite this nuanced? Maybe once or twice (think “Lost in Translation”), but never so enjoyably, since this character feels so wonderfully real without going over the top.
St. Vincent is right up there among his best work, including “Translation”, “Rushmore” and “Ground Hog Day”.
(Five out of five stars.)