Bill Murray is the screen’s funniest, most endearing curmudgeon.  Here in ST. VINCENT as the title character, he’s all pockmarked and rumply, biting the head off every cheerful do-gooder who has the nerve to make conversation. But that title is part of the problem, pretty much giving away the ending and any hope for subtlety.  I had been lead to believe otherwise by the first two thirds of the film which is very funny and even heartwarming. But in the homestretch, this saint crashes to earth in spectacular fashion and I found myself furious at the filmmaker for ruining all my fun and good cheer.

The plot is “ABOUT A BOY” light. Murray plays an alcoholic, Viet Nam vet living alone in squalor with a big, white, fluffy,  grumpy-faced persian cat who looks an awful lot like its owner, scowling at anyone who crosses his path. Enter the new next door neighbors: Melissa McCarthy as Maggie, a mom in mid-divorce, and her son Oliver who is as refined and intelligent as that name suggests. Jaeden Lieberher plays Oliver and the kid is a find. Serious, charming, and utterly natural, Lieberher absolutely holds his own opposite Murray, and we completely buy that he instantly gets under his jowly neighbor’s skin.

Melissa McCarthy for once is NOT depended upon to be THE comic force in the film, but the woman has such effortless comic timing, and is such a likeable, believable  actress, she makes us laugh in the most unexpected moments. Murray– whom we know has serious dramatic chops (Remember LOST IN TRANSLATION and his randy turn as the paralyzed FDR having an “interlude” with his cousin?) brings his dramatic weight to a character who might otherwise get lost in caricature.

Like his cat, Murray is grumpy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, and before you know it we meet a host of colorful folks who inhabit Vincent’s world: a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka played with abandon by Naomi Watts, a kindly loan shark played by Terence Howard, and a genial, down to earth Irish Catholic priest named Brother Geraghty played with hilarious candor by the ever affable Chris O’Dowd.

These are fairly stock characters enacted by a seriously skilled cast; that and the funny, tender interchanges between Vincent and young Oliver make the movie initially feel fresh. The filmmaking isn’t too shabby either as one scene cleverly elides with another: tight shot on Murray’s head futilely knocking against a bank teller’s window, immediately cross cut with a close up on a shot of bourbon he’s knocking back at a local bar. Later, the starting bell at yet another of Vincent’s losing stretches at the racetrack, bleeds into the bell at the start of class on Oliver’s first day at a new school– where bullies await. The editing underscores the developing rapport between a boy in need of a father, and man who we soon discover, thrives on nurturing.

The film begins to go south when writer/director Theodore Melfi –with only one other feature film to his credit–resorts to clumsy plotting to get to his predetermined ending. We know where this is going, but sheeesh– how about trying to get us there in a somewhat sensitive and believable way? There’s a medical crisis that suddenly erupts which solves an immediate problem, then a miraculously short recovery which solves another problem; perhaps Vincent is a saint after all.  Then an ending that collapses into cliche and rushes headlong toward a treacly climax so phony, I felt like I’d been slapped in the head with a pile of stale donuts.

ST. VINCENT strayed from the path and pays the price. You decide if Murray, McCarthy, and Lieberher are a holy enough family for you to take the gamble

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