The big news: In its first half, before it bottoms out with the rankest feel-goodery, Theodore Melfi's too-familiar ain't-he-irascible comedy-drama St. Vincent features scene after scene of Bill Murray actually trying to make you laugh. How long has it been? He plays Vincent, a drunk-driving Brooklynite whose look suggests science figured out how to grow whiskers on a half-deflated air mattress. Before the opening credits have wrapped, Vince steals from a fruit stand, gets dressed down by a bank loan officer, knocks himself out on his kitchen floor trying to break up ice with a hammer, and groggily balls with a pregnant Russian prostitute played — for some reason — by Naomi Watts, who shouts, after he can't quite pay in full, "My shit is not layaway!"
This stuff is broad and a little labored, but at least it's funny. Murray could score laughs with this material in his sleep, and here he almost does: Witness Vincent, sacked out on an easy chair, every breath a pained gurgle. It's just that woozy, checked-out quality that makes Murray's assholes so potent. They shamble through a life that hasn't worked out for them, insulting everyone who gets in their way, their hostile grossness something like the shell of a mollusk: a source of pride, a protective coating, all made up of their own secreted gunk.
In Stripes and Ghostbusters, all that was implied. Why else would Dr. Venkman, under the guise of science and courtship, subject Sigourney Weaver's Dana to such unrelenting harassment and disdain? Or squander what resources his university has given his team on a torture/flirtation study with nothing in the way of reproducible results? The funniest thing about him is that we can't possibly imagine the specifics of his past: When did this guy buckle down and write a dissertation? The classic Murray heroes never craved or even needed our love — and, with a crack or a roll of those eyes, they would always find a way to spurn it.
But St. Vincent, like most late Murray movies, wants to dig beneath that gunk, to see where it comes from, to strip it away and reveal the warm heart beneath it. Here that task is taken up by a kid, who actually narrates Vincent's life story to a roomful of nuns and other kids, who reward our hero with terrific applause, and then there's a big hug, which Vincent is totally into. Somewhere, Venkman pukes.
After that winningly broad opening, and some fine comic dust-ups between Murray and a neighbor played by a smartly restrained Melissa McCarthy, writer-director Melfi crosses streams that maybe shouldn't be crossed: He pairs his grumpy old lead with a likable but gently troubled youngster (Jaeden Lieberher), the son of McCarthy's character. Don't think Rushmore, though: St. Vincent's scenes of age-inappropriate bonding at bars and racetracks would have seemed hoary back in Walter Matthau's day, and the one of Vincent beating up the kids who bully his little pal plays like the edited-for-TV version of Bad Santa. There's so much here you've seen before: life lessons, a cruel dodgeball game, trouble with the Mob over gambling debts, even an urgent quest to raise thousands of dollars for a loved one's medical expenses. Why not have Murray try to save the surf shop, too?
Some moments still work after the movie grows mawkish: A bartender cuts Vincent off, and Murray embodies a frightening and pathetic rage. A third-act crisis is new and dark, and it pushes Murray and the film into surprising directions for a reel, but by the end it's mostly forgotten. Best of all is McCarthy, doing her finest work since Bridesmaids, this time playing a just-divorced nurse worried she's going to lose her kid and just desperate enough to let Vincent babysit. For once a McCarthy character holds her rage in, trying to temper the world with politeness, which of course makes it all the funnier when she does go off.
Tammy made McCarthy's character a comic monster and then insisted in the final scenes that, no, she's actually the best person in the world. St. Vincent makes the same mistake with Murray — the movie climaxes with Vincent getting a standing ovation just for walking into a room. But at least here you'll laugh sometimes, though not as much as you would if a Bill Murray character were making fun of it.