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, and groggily balls with a pregnant Russian prostitute played — for some reason — by Naomi Watts.
But St. Vincent, like most late Murray movies, wants to reveal the warm heart of an asshole. Here that task is taken up by a kid, who actually narrates Vincent's life story to a roomful of nuns and other youngsters, who reward our hero with terrific applause, and then there's a big hug, which Vincent is totally into. Somewhere, Murray's Dr. Venkman pukes.
Writer-director Melfi pairs his grumpy old lead with a likable but gently troubled kid (Jaeden Lieberher), the son of a nurse played by a smartly restrained Melissa McCarthy. 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 for a loved one's medical expenses. Why not have Murray try to save the surf shop, too?