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Murray makes cranky sweet

Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher are neighbors who become unlikely friends in “St. Vincent.”
Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher are neighbors who become unlikely friends in “St. Vincent.”
Roger Moore McClatchy-Tribune

Bill Murray has his most adorable film role ever in “St. Vincent,” playing a cranky and embittered old drunk who becomes a father figure to the little kid who moves in next door.

It takes every ounce of his disaffected cool, all of his misanthropic hipster persona to tamp dawn our intense need to go “Awww” at this little comedy’s crowd-pleasing cuteness. But Murray and writer-director Theodore Melfi play us like a music box, manipulating and charming our socks off even as the Vincent for whom the film is named curses, gambles, drinks and cheats – all in front of an impressionable 10-year-old.

Vincent McKenna lives in a run-down Brooklyn row house, sharing his sardines with a Persian cat, driving his battered, 30-year-old K-Car convertible to Belmont race track where he loses what little cash he has on hand.

He’s short-changing the testy Russian hooker he frequents (Naomi Watts). He’s in arrears to his bookie (Terrence Howard). And then he gets new neighbors.

Maggie – Melissa McCarthy – is going through a divorce. Oliver, her son (Jaeden Lieberher) is a quiet kid facing the hazing/bullying rituals of his new Catholic school. And Vincent isn’t interested.

Naturally, he ends up babysitting the kid for the desperate mom whose story “I don’t want to hear.” Shockingly, he drags the kid to the track, to a bar. And as self-absorbed as Vincent is, he can’t help but notice the kid’s problems. He’s never seen Abbott and Costello movies. Are they old?

“They’re dead. That’s the oldest you can be.”

He needs to stick up for himself, fight back against bullies.

“I’m small, sir!”

“So was Hitler.”

This bonding half of the film, with every outing and life lesson set to bouncy pop rock, is so jaunty that you may find yourself waiting for a shoe to drop. Because there’s always a shoe that’s about to drop in movies like this. The pleasures of Murray’s performance overwhelm that dread and make you forget the manipulation that comes with it.

McCarthy, allowed to play someone more human than caricature, shines. Watts wears Daka the pregnant hooker’s baby belly with a marvelously cynical resignation. Chris O’Dowd was born to play a hip teacher at Oliver’s school, the guy who instructs the new Jewish student about saints. A great joke? By show of hands, we’re told that almost nobody in Oliver’s new school is actually Catholic - Jews, Buddhists, Protestants, Agnostics to a one.

“I’m Catholic,” Brother Geraghty cracks. “Which is the best religion. Because we have the most rules. And the best clothes.”

But this is Murray’s vehicle, and even if he never quite sticks with an accent or convinces us of an infirmity, he is captivating, first scene to last. He dances. He sings (stay through the credits). And he charms. If he’s finally reached Walter Matthau’s golden years, it’s only fitting that “St. Vincent” be his “Bad News Bears.” No bad influence ever seemed as sweet.

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