Hearing that Melissa McCarthy plays a supporting role could provoke wildly divergent responses depending on how you tolerated her recent exercises in comic excess. If I told you she doesn’t throw any objects and acts a role extremely well, you might become intrigued.
In other words, “St. Vincent” could have gone wrong in so many ways yet somehow writer-director Ted Melfi pilots the cross-generational comedy through every danger zone into a satisfying story rife with emotion and sentiment while avoiding sentimentality.
Melfi has made over 100 commercials including a “Pizza Guy” starring porn star Ron Jeremy. But only one earlier feature, “Winding Roads,” wound up on cable TV. Yet he comes off like a veteran auteur here, bumping character-driven comedy into kitchen-sink naturalism as if that were an easy thing.
“St. Vincent” is yet another film this year set in Brooklyn although the only gangster, a lightly but effectively used Terrence Howard, figures only tangentially in the story. You sense Melfi knows the borough and its denizens though, especially those you would go out of your way to avoid.
The introduction to the movie’s protagonist, an aging, cantankerous, alcoholic retiree named Vincent (Murray), could not be more dispiriting: He’s tapped out all his financial resources, he hates the world, his temper gets even worse when he drinks — which is all the time — he’s self -destructive … oh, and he tells bad jokes.
He does have a very cool cat named Felix. So you’re willing to give him a few points for that.
His life seems to get that much worse when a desperate mom in the midst of an ugly divorce, Maggie (McCarthy), and her 12-year-old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), move in next door to Vincent’s gone-to-seed house in Sheepshead Bay.
He has little tolerance for kids or single moms but discovers a saving grace: He can hit mom up for extortionary babysitting rates when Oliver gets home from school, hours ahead of his hard-working mother.
Some easy comedy derives from Vincent bringing Oliver along on his usual stops, meaning a race track and dive bar, and introducing him to his only friend, a pregnant Russian stripper-hooker named Daka (Naomi Watts).
Rather than playing this for laughs — ones that many mothers might not appreciate — Melfi shows more interest in focusing on a growing if reluctant friendship between the curious young boy and friendless old man.
More surprises come: Oliver’s nasty clash with a larger, meaner boy at school (Dario Barosso) takes a couple of unexpected turns. Classroom scenes concerning religion have a lovely comic rhythm thanks to delightful playing by Chris O’Dowd as a priest-teacher.
The biggest one, and this is where you begin your reappraisal of Vincent, are touching visits to a mystery woman (Donna Mitchell) suffering from dementia in an elder care facility where all his orneriness and rage vanish, exposing a tender-hearted soul with enormous capacity for love.
You see where this is all heading but, fortunately, Melfi takes unexpected routes including Vincent’s own medical emergency.
Murray doesn’t pander for either sympathy or laughs. He stays true to his character, letting you understand how a guy got like this but never looking for pity. He is, after all, the author of much of his misfortune.
Lieberher is a real find, displaying none of the cloying precociousness of many child actors. He’s smart, cagey even, in his approach to scenes opposite veteran actors, playing a boy almost as if he were already grown up even if he doesn’t fully understand the meaning of the term “lady of the night.”
This film’s night lady, Watts, has a great time with the colorful English of her Russian prostitute and her no-nonsense approach to life. Her every scene bursts with energy.
McCarthy gets all the pent-up frustration of her over-the-top comic characters into this single mom but bringing everything down a few notches does wonders. Playing for empathy rather than laughs, she wins both.
The film is extremely well cast in even the smaller roles such as Kimberly Quinn as a nurse, Greta Lee as a bank teller and Ann Down as the care facility administrator.
Crew work in Brooklyn and the Belmont Race Track make you understand why Brooklyn has become a popular film location.
Opens: October 10; expands October 17, 2014 (The Weinstein Company)
Production company: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Kimberly Quinn, Nate Corddry, Scott Adsit
Director/screenwriter: Theodore Melfi
Producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Theodore Melfi, Fred Roos
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Don Cheadle, G. Mac Brown
Director of photography: John Lindley
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone
Editors: Peter Teschner, Sarah Flack
PG-13 rating, 102 minutes