Movie review: St. Vincent is heartwarming despite itself

Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy deliver career-milestone performances in a sweet if sometimes too maudlin dramedy.

With news of Ebola, ISIS and other real-life horrors upstaging Halloween-time's high jinks, a coming-of-age heart-tugger may be just what the doctor ordered for American movie audiences right now — and if all else fails, send in Bill Murray. Everybody loves Bill Murray.

St. Vincent (PG-13) 102 min., Stars: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher. Written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Opens Friday in local theaters.

Ellen DeGeneres had the King of Quirk on her show this week along with his St. Vincent co-stars, Melissa McCarthy and 11-year-old actor Jaeden Lieberher. DeGeneres effused hyperbole during each of the appearances, heaping praise on the movie and embarrassing Murray with a rant about how he would be robbed if he weren't nominated for an Oscar for his canonized title role. 

It's no surprise that the upbeat talk show host has taken a shine to the uplifting dramedy. St. Vincent is a low-key, working-class charmer with seamless editing and cinematography, in addition to a pleasing indie-folk-pop soundtrack. The shots breathe authenticity; its production recalls gritty 1970s/early-'80s spirited underdog flicks of the Atari generation (in the vein of My Bodyguard and Breaking Away). Murray's delivery and a supercool white Himalayan pet cat are among St. Vincent's virtues. 

The film, if you haven't seen one of the thousand trailers on TV and the Internet, acquaints us with quiet tween Oliver Bronstein, who has just moved next door to cantankerous Vietnam vet Vincent McKenna. The grumpy, alcoholic neighbor somehow finagles a cakewalk babysitting gig looking after the boy (one of the film's more unbelievable plot points). As one can predict, the two eventually bond and bring out the best in each other. With not-so-subtle revelations about Vincent's true nature and a Catholic schoolteacher played cleverly by IT Crowd/Bridesmaids' Chris O'Dowd, we can figure out early on how the film gets its name.

Despite St. Vincent's predictability and a few moments of heavy-handed drama and manipulation, the film has what it takes to hit your cinematic sweet spot — that is, provided it's not cauterized by too much cynicism and film-school purism. It's arguable whether first-time director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi should even be called out on some of his Hollywood-style overtures; after all, middle-class life can be corny and predictable much of the time. Regardless, the film's first-rate performances, easygoing flow and in-the-room intimacy make up for its sap drippings. Each frustrated, contemplative expression on Bill Murray's face is like a movie unto itself. 

The rest of the cast measures up. Melissa McCarthy is spot-on in her most understated role to date as stressed-out newbie divorcee and single mom Maggie Bronstein. Naomi Watts is delightfully trashy and surprisingly dimensional as Daka, a Russian hooker with questionable fashion sense, and Lieberher's Oliver reveals a young actor beyond his years. He's got a Yoda-like Zen that's rare for a kid, and highly watchable. 

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