The grumpy geezer Bill Murray plays in Ted Melfi's gentle comedy St. Vincent is not exactly a stretch. Vincent is a down-on-his-luck gent festering in a falling-down row house on the butt end of Brooklyn. Familiar stuff happens: A little boy named Oliver with bowl-cut hair and a noticeably absent father moves in next door with his mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy).
Oliver, who's played without undue cuteness by newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, is wise beyond his years, but puny and in need of help seeing off the school bully. Vincent is nobody's idea of in loco parentis, but he needs the babysitting money and can offer Oliver the school of life via lessons in self-defense, trips to the racetrack and dive bars, etc., etc.
In return, Oliver offers living proof that some kids possess innate resilience, common sense and optimism that function independently of the rotten things that life hands them.
Other kooks are fed into the mix to create a cobbled-together family of putative losers. Naomi Watts, in tacky dress and a creditable Russian accent as a pregnant hooker, sashays in for weekly appointments with Vincent. Chris O'Dowd is Oliver's sympathetic Catholic-school priest, and Terrence Howard makes a none-too-sinister loan shark trying to collect from Vincent.
Off to the side, there's a pretty woman (Donna Mitchell) in assisted living whose relationship to Vincent signals the takeaway — which is that we don't know anyone's story, not really, until we get up close.
And even then, only if we're allowed in. In this film we are.
St. Vincent brings no fresh news. But the movie is sweet, kind and mostly crisply written. The round-the-clock aggravation and proximity to disaster that poverty brings is acutely observed, along with the persistent vitality of neglected neighborhoods and those who, willy-nilly, land in them.
Melfi provides Melissa McCarthy with a fine chance to do something other than throw herself around. She's dandy at that too, but it's a treat to watch her dial it down for a role that has nothing to do with her size or her precise gift for physical comedy. Here she's a pretty great mother who has the smarts and the open mind to stop doing one big thing wrong for herself and her son.
There's a long, probably improvised sequence to go with the end credits of St. Vincent, with Murray sitting on a bench in Vincent's yard, doing goofy things with a garden hose. Bob Dylan is involved, for slightly too obvious thematic reasons.
But even when disaster comes to Vincent in spades, Murray's doing what he always does, which always looks as though it's not much. He says his lines, lifts his eyebrows or his hands, palms up. Now and again he throws a hissy fit or falls down. Mostly, he lets things happen around him while occupying the movie's center, patiently waiting for something to happen to show that he's less disaffected than he seems.
I'll be darned if I know what it is that Murray does with all this doing nothing, but somehow he's also been the guy to make you believe in a television newscaster who wakes up to the same lousy Groundhog Day every day until Andie MacDowell rides to the rescue. More preposterous yet, he makes you suspend all disbelief that, in Lost in Translation, a woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson could possibly fall for a depressive has-been who looks like Bill Murray.
You can put Murray in a drama or a comedy or almost anything that isn't too loud or too busy, and he'll drain the goo without also ditching the humanity. In this instance, he's the perfect guy to carry the movie's pleasantly ordinary tune, which sings that saints are nothing but flawed people doing good.