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ST. VINCENT: 3 STARS. “a great Murray-esque character study.”

75What kind of goodwill does Bill Murray bring to “St. Vincent”? In the opening scene of the dramatic comedy from director Theodore Melfi, he tells the world’s worst joke—punchline, “That’s not a porch, it’s a BMW”—and still gets a giggle out of the audience.

Murray plays Vincent, a Sheep’s Head, New York guy whose life is in as bad a shape as his jokes. He’s usually drunk or trying to get drunk. His house is second mortgaged to the hilt, his bank account in overdraft and his only friends are a Himalayan cat and the pregnant working girl he pays for company. His new neighbors, single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and ten year old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) are a nuisance to him, until he discovers he can make a few extra bucks babysitting the boy. “Is that our new neighbor,” says Oliver when he first spies Vincent. “It’s going to be a long life.” The pair, however, form a bond. Vinnie passes along valuable life experience, like how to fight, bet on horses and order a drink in a bar, but when Oliver’s dad sues for co-custody it turns out Vinnie’s life lessons may have been ill advised.

There is a scene early on in “St. Vincent” showing Vinnie, head awash in booze, dancing, blissed out to “White Rabbit” on the jukebox in the back room of a seedy bar. It’s a great Murray-esque character study. With just a few drunken gyrations we figure out that Vincent does as he pleases. He always danced like no one was watching.

That’s the essence of the character, and those moments elevate “St. Vincent” from wacky-old-man movie to interesting character study. Murray is always watchable, interesting and reaching for the unexpected even in a movie as by-the-book as this. The story hits all the inspirational notes you’d expect from a movie about building an unconventional family and occasionally falters on the side of sentimentality but overrides the syrupy tone of the old man genre with a series of stand put performances.

Noami Watts is almost unrecognizable as Daka, a plainspoken, pregnant hooker with an impenetrable accent and, if not exactly a heart of gold, an affection for things made of gold. It’s a rare comedic role for her and she nails it, physically and emotionally.

As Maggie McCarthy takes a refreshing step away from her well established comedic persona to deliver a supporting role that has laughs but shows more of her range than we’re used to.

The film’s secret weapon, however, is the pairing of Jaeden Lieberher and Murray. Like Mutt and Jeff–although it’s not clear who is Mutt and who is Jeff, who is the child and who is the adult–they are a matched and balanced pair, with chemistry to burn. Their scenes together are the heart of the film and when they are separated the movie loses some of its appeal.

“St. Vincent” is more predictable than you might want from a Bill Murray movie. He usually makes left-of-centre choices, or at least puts a spin on the regular. The latter is true here, but Murray’s blissed-out dancing reverie and bad jokes are still worth the price of admission.

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