Review: Bill Murray is a force of nature in charming ‘St. Vincent’

TORONTO – You may find this hard to believe, but the last time the world was treated to a movie with Bill Murray in a leading role was 2005″s “Broken Flowers.” The legendary comedic actor has kept busy since then in supporting roles, but much to his fans' chagrin, he hasn”t really been at the center of the action. That has all changed with the new comedy “St. Vincent,” which debuted at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night.

The feature directorial and screenwriting debut of industry veteran Theodore Melfi, “St. Vincent” finds Murray playing Vincent (without the “St.” at first), a 68-year-old cantankerous, inebriated and financially unstable “old man.” Vincent is in debt with a reverse mortgage, owes a bookie a hefty sum after bad bets at the racetrack and just seems to be the victim of a lot of self-induced bad luck. The only positives in his life are his fluffy white cat and the pregnant “woman of the night” (Naomi Watts) he fools around with every week.

That is until the arrival of his new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Desperate for money, Vincent agrees to babysit Oliver on a regular basis after Maggie's new job gets the best of her. The film then explores all the comedic possibilities you can easily imagine between a morally suspect Murray, er, Vincent and a precocious 12-year-old. You know the film is going to get “serious” at some point, but those dramatic turns are somewhat unexpected and, ultimately, moving.

One of the reasons Murray has earned awards buzz before the premiere of “St. Vincent” is because his character is much richer than how he first appears on screen. Without giving away too many details, Vincent has secrets, he has commitments Oliver or Maggie are unaware of and, scarily, he goes through a significant trauma during the course of the picture. These elements are part of the formula that allows the “Saint” portion of the film”s title to come into play. Murray, of course, has proven himself a master actor whether starring in a flat out comedy or a serious drama. When “Vincent” takes a few turns towards the latter, he deftly balances it all (along with a slight Brooklyn accent for kicks). This may not be his signature work, but it”s Murray at the top of his game in the type of role audiences want to see him in. Frankly, it”s somewhat surprising it took him this long to find a project in this vein.

Melfi”s direction may be somewhat conventional, but he benefits from his strong and funny screenplay as well as a fantastic ensemble of actors. Chris O”Dowd brings extra comic relief as the compassionate priest who is also Oliver”s schoolteacher. Melissa McCarthy rebounds nicely from the disappointing “Tammy” earlier this year by providing Maggie with the appropriate gravitas and humor. It”s not a tremendous stretch for her, but she”s one of the few actors who can go toe to toe with Murray on screen and not be quickly forgotten. The real jewel for Melfi, however, is Lieberher.

“St. Vincent” is the 12-year-old”s first film (yes, he played older than his age on screen) and it”s no surprise he followed it up with leading roles in Cameron Crowe and Jeff Nichol”s next projects. Simply put, Lieberher is fantastic as Oliver. His comic timing is superb (it”s apparent in long takes with no cutting) and he has a screen presence that defies his age. He is an absolute talent and Melfi has to be indebted to him for delivering in a role that would either make or break the movie.

Even before the enthusiastic response at the film's world premiere, The Weinstein Company must have realized that with the right marketing and distribution, Melfi”s crowd-pleaser could be a nice hit for the mini-major in a release frame with little comedic competition. Moreover, the more successful the film is at the box office, the more likely Murray may find himself in play for his second Oscar nomination. At this point, he would likely be thrilled with either outcome.

“St. Vincent” opens in limited release on Oct. 10 and expands nationwide by Oct. 24.