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In 'St. Vincent,' Appearances Deceive

Beneath his crusty carapace, war vet Bill Murray turns out to be a tenderhearted savior

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Stars: Terence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Bill Murray, Naomi Watts

Director: Theodore Melfi

2014 will not go down in history as the Year of the Feel-Good Movie. From World War II gorefests to disease chronicles to emotional breakdowns, the year's films put our hankie supplies to an extreme test. Thank goodness, then, for St. Vincent, a feel-good comedy-drama that plasters a smile on your face about a third of the way through and leaves it there until the credits roll.

First-time feature director-writer Theodore Melfi's script about a sixtysomething curmudgeon who finds friendship — and salvation — in the unlikeliest places is not remarkably original. But the characters who people this film are just quirky enough (and the actors who play them are so sublime) that you come away convinced you've never seen anything like it. And so what if the story builds to a sentimental crescendo? I relished the cynicism reprieve that St. Vincent offers.

St. Vincent, Bill Murray, movie review

The Weinstein Company

In “St. Vincent,” Jaeden Lieberher works on neighbor Bill Murray’s “lawn” as well as on his soft side.

Bill Murray was nominated for an Oscar for 2003's Lost in Translation, and he should be again as Vincent McKenna, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking Vietnam vet who's forever short of both money and goodwill toward mankind.

Deadpan and cracking wise, Murray is perfectly cast as McKenna, whether he's enjoying a roll in the hay with one of his few friends — a pregnant Russian hooker named Daka (Naomi Watts in fabulous form) — or stalling Zucko (Terrence Howard of Hustle & Flow), the racetrack bookie to whom he owes big money.

McKenna's hardened shell shows no signs of cracking until a newly divorced woman named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son, Oliver (the fledgling Jaeden Lieberher), move in next door.

Maggie's a hard-working nurse — a smart move on Melfi's part, since it gives McCarthy a chance to prove that her acting chops extend way beyond loudmouthed slapstick (and gives the audience a chance to forget Tammy). Oliver, meanwhile, is a ferocious intelligence trapped in a small body. Clearly, only fate could have arranged for these two to cross paths with Vincent.

After bullies steal Oliver's backpack — and house keys — on his first day at a new school, Oliver is forced to hang out at Vincent's apartment until Maggie gets home. Vincent winds up watching the kid on a regular basis (for pay, of course), but the new gig cramps his style not a bit: While Maggie's hard at work, Vincent lets Oliver tag along as he visits a bar, discusses plans for the baby with Daka and hits the racetrack.

You know this arrangement can't last, right? Soon enough Maggie's ex-husband shows up, seeking joint custody. He gets wind of Vincent's unorthodox field trips and reports the goings-on to the court, forcing Maggie to relieve Vincent of his babysitting duties.

It's wide-eyed Oliver who exposes Vincent's softer side: the saint inside the sinner, the brute with a tender heart, the man whose unsuspected past we get to glimpse when he visits a certain female patient at a nearby Alzheimer's clinic.

Sometimes we are exactly who people think we are. But occasionally we'd be someone else, someone better, if only people thought of us a bit differently. That's the uplifting message of St. Vincent, and I'm happy to admit it repays the price of admission.

Meg Grant is West Coast editor of AARP The Magazine.