At the Toronto Film Festival world premiere of St. Vincent, Bill Murray was asked how he landed the title role of a grumpy old man. He looked at writer-director Theodore Melfi and said, “Because you couldn’t get Jack Nicholson.” The character of Vincent, a seedy Brooklyn misanthrope, might seem an odd candidate for a schoolboy’s “Saints Among Us” project, the premise of Melfi’s movie, but he does fit the template Nicholson established in As Good as It Gets and The Bucket List–a crab apple that ultimately turns Delicious. And Murray at 64, 13 years Nicholson’s junior, has the gravelly gravitas to bring some ornery life to a reductive fable of redemption.
After Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa comes Bad Saint. Vincent wanders Sheepshead Bay like Marley’s ghost, from the local bar to Belmont racetrack to the arms of the pregnant Russian hooker Daka (Naomi Watts). He’s deeply in hock everywhere, so he could use the $12 an hour a new neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) with a double-shift hospital job will pay him to mind Oliver, her 12-year-old son. Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) has his own problems: an absent father, his own personal bully (Dario Barossa) at school and now this horrible geezer as a babysitter.
If you think Vincent will become Oliver’s nemesis or predator rather than his mentor and savior, you are imagining a more complex movie than Melfi, a TV-commercial director making his first feature, has in mind. Yes, Vincent takes Oliver to the bar and the track; he spumes his bad moods all over this very decent kid. But he gives the boy life lessons, like how to fight off the brutes at school. Vincent also has a secret charity, which shows he has a heart, and it won’t stop aching.
The overqualified actors often give quirky life to a script that denudes their characters of nuance. McCarthy goes nicely pianissimo for a change, and fretful rather than shrewish. Lieberher offers charmingly understated counterpoint to the star curmudgeon. Watts chips in with a few chipper chippie scenes.
And Murray reminds us that he’s a precious movie resource. Tooling around in a wood-paneled ’83 LeBaron convertible, he inhabits the role like an ingenious squatter in an abandoned tenement, picking through the detritus of plot and finding nourishment for Vincent’s pain and wayward grace.
And yet nothing can make a discerning viewer feel worse than a feel-good movie like this one. Melfi ends scenes with visual punch lines that play like rim shots, forces salvation on everyone (including Oliver’s bully) and truckles shamelessly for emotional uplift. This barrage is enough to turn any saint in the audience into the old, grouchy Vincent, before he got canonized.
This appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of TIME.