Even As a Down-And-Out Drunk, Bill Murray Remains St. Vincent's Saving Grace.

St. Vincent.
Director: Theodore Melfi.
Writer: Theodore Melfi.
Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd.
Playing At: Angelika Film Center (Dallas) and Cinemark West Plano.

Bill Murray could never make another movie and his status as The Coolest Guy on Earth would be cemented. The comedy pro has never won an Oscar, but he's one of the most dedicated and selective actors in Hollywood. Actors of his age are known to phone it in, but Murray always goes for it, even in misguided efforts like Garfield, Hyde Park on Hudson and Charlie's Angels.

And so he's elevated the maudlin, overstuffed St. Vincent into something touching and funny. Murray plays the title character, a hard-drinking sluggard who spends what little money he has betting on horses and knocking back a few whether he wins or loses.

His new neighbors, single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), are just the kind of perky optimists a cynic like Vincent can't stand. But of course they're going to become their own sort of dysfunctional but loving family by the end of the film.

I have to give writer-director Theodore Melfi some credit here. Instead of just giving McCarthy yet another loud-but-lovable role to play, he's given her a chance to show off her genuine acting chops. Having her in Bridesmaids mode would have found her fighting for attention in scenes with Murray. Directors would do well to have her play more real people, instead of just variations on the same type.

But the most important relationship is the one between Vincent and Oliver. It's Lieberher's debut, but he absolutely holds his own against Murray. He's a dapper little one, precocious but never annoying. He's a perfect foil, looking for the best in people even as a difficult life has taught Vincent to see nothing but selfishness.

It's the cast that makes the movie. Melfi, making his feature writing and directing debut, could have used a good editor. Between subplots about shady gambling enforcers, protracted custody battles and expensive nursing homes, there's way too much plot for a movie, especially one that's often more comedy than drama.

So let's talk about something that's supposed to be funny, but will go down as one of the most head-scratching choices in recent film history. Naomi Watts, one of the best actresses working today, plays Daka, a prostitute frequented by Vincent. On paper, that's not so bad. But she's also Russian and pregnant and cracking jokes every scene. It's completely distracting and doesn't really serve a purpose in this film. Like several other characters, she could have been cut out completely and you wouldn't have missed much.

But that's one of many reasons why I'm glad we've still got Bill Murray. He's the glue that holds this whole mess together. And that's why this movie gets my blessing.

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