Occasionally, he rouses himself to deliver a jolt to his fanbase by playing it straight in roles such as President Franklin D Roosevelt in Hyde Park On Hudson, a choice on a par with Ricky Gervais essaying Neville Chamberlain, but Murray’s comfort zone lies with whiskey-and-wry characters, who live heavy-lidded, sardonic lives.
You can sketch out his character in St Vincent very early on when he describes prostitution as “one of the more honest ways to make a living”. He’s a cranky old coot, living alone in a battered homestead with a Persian cat, and his daily routine involves padding from his home to the bookies and then on to a bar, or perhaps making a visit to a pregnant Russian stripper (Naomi Watts) who gives clients a line of credit on her services and has a hefty Slavic accent that could turn a bowl of borscht white.
A lack of funds and a loan shark (Terrence Howard) wanting to collect his debts threatens this life of steady dissipation, until a new neighbour (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door. She’s divorced, harassed and in need of a babysitter for her neat, polite 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) until she gets home from work. For $11 an hour, Vincent takes the job. Of course he does: Oliver is one of those precocious, awkward kids with a terrible haircut that Murray has met before, most notably in Rushmore.
Vincent folds Oliver into his racetrack and barfly routine, and serves him dinners of sardines on crackers and calls it “sushi”. Gradually he starts dispensing life lessons to the child as well, showing him how to play the horses, sit up at a bar, and tutoring him in self defence so he can stand up to the school bully. Learning how to punch is an awfully familiar part of male bonding stories, and if you’re Gandhi, you might wonder: is violence really the best way to resolve conflict? If you’re me, then you wonder: what if the other kid is two years older or two stone heavier?
Colourful support comes from Chris O’Dowd as a sardonic Catholic priest at Oliver’s school, who I suspect wrote most of his own lines because there’s nothing else in the movie quite as pithy as his pronouncement that Catholicism is the world’s best religion because it has the most rules and the best clothes.
The rest of St Vincent feels like writer-director Theodore Melfi has shown us a gun in the first act, then keeps waving it under our noses every ten minutes. Why does Vincent like to visit a nursing home to check up on a nice, refined lady (Donna Mitchell) who seems to be suffering from dementia? Who could she possibly be? When is the due date for the pregnant hooker? When will Oliver’s mother decide to check up on Oliver and Vincent and find out what they do together?
The freshest thing about St Vincent is that McCarthy doesn’t get to noodle through her repertoire of self-deprecating fat jokes. As a movie it’s too neat and diagrammatic, but Murray is watchable right through to the end.