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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bill Murray does his best with a sitcom role in St. Vincent

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More than halfway through St. Vincent, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) describes her elderly next-door neighbor, Vincent (Bill Murray), as a wiseass. The word certainly applies to a lot of Murray characters, and to some degree it’s workable for Vincent, who greets most of the world with Murray-like heavy-lidded irreverence. But the man also has a touch of Robert Duvall-like irascibility—a quality that makes him more of a cranky loudmouth than a true wiseass. Plus, he isn’t all that funny.

Vincent gets some laughs, because Murray is a wizard of delivery, even when he’s holding back his deadpan wisecracks and conversational riffing in favor of an old-school Brooklyn yawp. As written, though, the character could fit right in on a CBS sitcom. Why, he describes prostitution as “one of the more honest ways to make a living,” but advises Maggie’s young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) to never become a “pencil-pusher” because they’re “spineless.” Not only that, but he hates the phrase “it is what it is,” and he’ll tell you about it. In other words, no one’s safe from his kooky worldview. He’s the original, uh, guy who makes canned old-coot remarks.

But for a movie about an irascible old coot babysitting a sweet-natured preteen boy, as Vincent does when single parent Maggie must work long hours at her hospital job, St. Vincent goes down easier than it probably should. It helps that Lieberher, though saddled with some cutesy movie-kid dialogue, makes a sweet and empathetic sidekick for Murray (he calls him “sir” constantly, like Marcie in old Peanuts strips), and that McCarthy, like so many gifted comedians, proves capable of playing it straight as needed. Most interesting for fans of its star, though, will be the crossing of the prickly Murray from so many comedies with the melancholy Murray of Wes Anderson films. In a few scenes, he almost seems to be playing his own version of Royal Tenenbaum, even if writer-director Theodore Melfi doesn’t share Anderson’s golden touch with either slow-motion or pop music.

St. Vincent has plenty of hokey subplots, including a Catholic-school thread whose final endgame is badly telegraphed by the movie’s title. But in allowing Murray to go serious, the film confronts some actual realities of aging. In fact, it probably confronts too much, taking turns into redemption comedy, hospital drama, courtroom drama, coming-of-age dramedy, and life-lessons tearjerker—all while maintaining that it’s the type of cheap yukfest that wants to wring humor from a blunt-spoken, Russian-accented hooker (Naomi Watts, selling some of the laugh lines).

The cluttered story winds up obscuring who, exactly, Vincent is supposed to be; his late-movie shift from louche slob to essentially selfless man doesn’t quite convince. St. Vincent is most evocative when Melfi lets his camera regard Murray’s face: in one of his frequent overhead shots of Vincent reclined and sleeping in a chair; from a shot fixed to the side of Vincent’s car as he cavalierly backs into his narrow driveway; or, in what might amount to the best five minute and two seconds in the whole movie, a long take of Murray half-singing along with Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm” in full. These quiet moments aren’t necessarily what interests Melfi most. (The “Storm” sequence is placed like a throwaway). But in a movie outfitted with a sitcom premise, they do count for something.