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27 November 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:18pm

Return of the slacker: the scuzzy appeal of Bill Murray in St Vincent

Murray plays Vincent, a crabby, pasty-faced soak whose days are spent mooching around his neighbourhood, frequenting dive bars and canoodling with a pregnant prostitute. 

By Ryan Gilbey

St Vincent (12A)
dir: Theodore Melfi

Bill Murray is prone to pop up just about anywhere these days. He has gatecrashed weddings, driven a golf cart through Stockholm and materialised on street corners to clutch gobsmacked strangers to his bosom with the words: “No one will ever believe you.” There is every likelihood that you could find him administering your pedicure or mowing your lawn. But the new comedy St Vincent proves he can still squeeze dedicated performances in between being an extemporaneous hipster folk hero. He plays Vincent, a crabby, pasty-faced soak whose days are spent mooching around his neighbourhood, frequenting dive bars and canoodling with a pregnant prostitute (Naomi Watts with comedy eastern European accent). In repose in an armchair with a fluffy candyfloss cat on his lap, he resembles a down-at-heel Blofeld.

In one scene, Jefferson Airplane offer a hint from a bar-room jukebox of what his life is missing: “Wouldn’t you love somebody to love?/You better find somebody to love.” Enter a beleaguered single mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), who moves in next door and corners Vincent into babysitting her prim 12-year-old son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). The boy takes one look at him and sighs: “It’s gonna be a long life.”

You’ll be shocked to learn that Vincent does not clonk the kid on the head with a whiskey bottle and bury him beneath the azaleas. Gradually and grudgingly they bond. Both are being hounded – Vincent by bookies, Oliver by bullies. The reprobate teaches his young ward to floor his tormentors. He takes him to bars and strip shows; it is the way of the movies that none of this comes off as creepy. Their odd-couple double act may be clichéd but it is also successful, thanks to the effervescent chemistry between Murray and Lieberher. The boy is pale and thin and quiet; he matches his weatherbeaten co-star in every mordant aside and minimalist twitch of the eyebrow.

The acting has an easygoing, yada-yada quality. It’s nice to see McCarthy in some lightly dramatic acting after her volcanic comic turns in Bridesmaids and The Heat. The Irish actor Chris O’Dowd makes a decent fist of a daft role as Oliver’s Catholic schoolteacher, who sets his class a project to nominate everyday saints from their community. A clonk on the head with a whiskey bottle awaits anyone who can’t guess whom Oliver chooses.

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St Vincent is always entertaining but it puts so many insurance policies in place to shore up our love for Vincent that you wonder if the film-makers have any perception of the goodwill surrounding Murray. To every character flaw, Theodore Melfi, a first-time writer-director, has attached mitigating circumstances. Up to his eyes in debt? He’s paying for a care home for his wife, who has Alzheimer’s. Hopeless drunk? He’s blotting out his wartime memories. Melfi plays it safe. In a racetrack scene, he throws in a horse named Harvey Knows Best. (The Weinstein Company is distributing the movie.) The score even has little handclaps scattered throughout, like the aural equivalent of the illuminated “Applause” signs at TV recordings.

Anyone familiar with Murray’s work knows to take the rough with the smooth. I don’t mean that he has made poor choices. (Well, with one exception. Playing himself in the terrific horror-comedy Zombieland, he is asked on his deathbed whether he has any regrets. He thinks, then replies with an upward inflection: “Garfield maybe?”) But unapologetic scuzziness has always been part of his appeal. Think of his outstanding moments – trying and failing to get his girlfriend not to leave him in Stripes (“You can’t go! All the plants are gonna die!”), smoking two cigarettes at once in Rushmore, carefully cramming a slab of angel cake into his gob in Groundhog Day. They involve a transformation of the slobbish and sleazy into charm.

This is an actor who can afford more than ever to dice with danger in his choice of roles, who should regard with suspicion the unconditional love of his audience. (That way lies the deadly status of International Treasure.) A picture that manufactures so many reasons to love him could be accused of gilding the Murray.