Once upon a time, Bill Murray was an over-the-title star of zany comedies, money-making multiplex material that relied on his special brand of archly rumpled cynicism. Stripes, Groundhog Day and the Ghostbusters series were all infused with that unknowable menu of distinctive Bill Murrayisms, their sly, sniggering plots driven on by the sad-sack smirking of the former Saturday Night Live gag-peddler. Scrooged will be buried in the television listings this Christmas. Be sure not to miss it.
Beneath his comic shell, however, Murray was hiding a significant talent for straighter content. In the latter years of a career no longer punctuated by the landmarks which defined it in the 1980s and early 1990s, the erstwhile Peter Venkman has carved out a comfortable niche as a wearied character actor of striking quality. With Lost in Translation, Murray confirmed his renaissance; the performance as faded performer Bob Harris — a light spin on his own shifting palette — in Sofia Coppola’s sumptuous Tokyo romance chimed with a refined understatement few would have imagined in the days when the actor was striding around our screens shooting lasers at flying green ghouls.
Dabbling since then in most of Wes Anderson’s quirky ensemble fables, leading the way for the likes of indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) and vaunted newcomer Aaron Schneider (Get Low), Murray continues to follow the demands of his heart rather than his bank manager. He may wear the expression of someone who rarely concerns himself with the public’s foibles, but his recent career path seems especially wise when assessing an effortless, complex turn in debut writer-director Theodore Melfi’s occasionally charming St. Vincent.
Murray excels as the eponymous Vincent MacKenna. Grizzled, rude and often less than sober, this ostensibly unlikeable curmudgeon spends his days at the track or in the pub, shooting mildly acidic barbs at its long-suffering proprietor. Avoiding his shifty bookie (a terribly underused Terrence Howard) and half intending to do right by a pregnant Russian prostitute-stripper girlfriend (the heavily accented Naomi Watts), Vincent is Brooklyn’s Jeff Lebowski, minus the charm and the robe.
As the ornery centrepiece in this mellow, sweet, but often silly, comedy-drama, the weight of Melfi’s less polished ambitions rest on Murray’s shoulders and he delivers manfully. Vincent is not a bad guy, though he is not an especially nice one either, and when Melissa McCarthy’s vulnerable Maggie moves in next door with her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), he is dragged, with no little grumbling or financial incentive, into their domestic turmoil.
A friendship develops between Oliver and Vincent, both worldly in their own ways, the older man’s blunt guidance the mark of a surrogate father figure that the young boy unknowingly craves. As saccharine as this may sound, Melfi’s commitment to a delicate narrative conceit — neither is desperate for such a connection, yet each quietly embraces it — succeeds in most respects.
Vincent’s life is an otherwise lonely ruin of debt and petty hustling; Oliver’s easy-going companionship proves an ample remedy. Where director and star score highest, mercifully, is in steering Murray away from any mawkish redemption story. Where he might have morphed into an agreeable old codger with the aid of Oliver’s innocent faith in their relationship, Vincent essentially remains unchanged. His stubborn inelegance is merely accepted by those around him.
As one would expect, Murray is afforded the room to weave layers into his characterisation. He hints at gold beneath the surface, his unpleasant exterior and genuine humanity the unavoidable run-off of significant life experience. Unfortunately these meaty extras are woefully underwritten, replaced instead by an increasingly superficial tale which aims for charm but feels as rote and predictable as anything featured in Adam Sandler’s more puerile efforts.
The overall effect, therefore, is ultimately clumsy. Murray’s scene-stealing, so watchable throughout, grates against the distracting ancillary arc of Maggie’s custody battle with her ex-husband and a ham-fisted school project — overseen by Chris O’Dowd as a droll Catholic priest — which sees Vincent forced into a corner so cuddly that he appears embarrassed just to be near it.
Next to Murray, the always brilliant McCarthy more than holds her own by battling against a dearth of depth. A fine comedienne, she, like the leading man, possesses an impressive dramatic range. Personable and amusing in equal measures, hers is a presence deserving of better. Watts, on the other hand, looks rightly confused by an undefined and needlessly unpredictable role. Her pecking nag smells vaguely insulting for an actress of Watts’s gifts and suggests, perhaps, that 2013’s Diana debacle is not easily overcome.
Lieberher, however, is a talent to watch. With an air of resigned acceptance and displaying not a hint of irritating precocity, his believable stoicism serves to ground the maudlin final chapter even while he is forced to engage with it.
An edited version of this article was first published here.