Over the course of his lengthy and yes, distinguished career, Bill Murray has tackled characters ranging from country club groundskeeper to ghost-buster to army private, and he’s made each one memorable. He’s even done cantankerous before, too, as Scrooged‘s Frank Cross and, of course, Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. But Bill Murray has never had a role quite like Vincent MacKenna, the boozing, chain-smoking Vietnam vet/gambler/curmudgeon in Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent. And he’s never turned in a performance quite as good, either… and that includes Lost in Translation. Murray is fearless and honest in the role, completely losing himself in a character that many actors in Hollywood would kill for but few could do any justice. And none, I warrant, could do it as well.

It’s too bad that the movie itself can’t equal to the level set by its star. Instead, though, Melfi’s script quickly becomes a formulaic slog of one man’s journey to redemption via the wide-eyed innocence of a child. Yes… that story again.

Vincent is in debt up to his bloodshot eyes, both with banks and bookies. His cupboards are bare. And his wardrobe consists solely of camouflage cargo shorts and sleeveless tees. He spends most of his days losing at the horse track, or sitting in his Brooklyn backyard listening to his Walkman, or enjoying the company of pregnant Russian prostitute Daka (Naomi Watts). Then he gets new neighbors in the form of divorced mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). And just like that– before you can even say “precocious”, we’re on the path to Vincent’s transformation into a decent human being. You can almost see the final-act, heartfelt tears of joy from here.

Give Melfi credit– he can certainly create characters, and his comedy chops are fairly solid. His casting choices are spot-on, too, from McCarthy (who here gets the welcome chance to play it straight for once) to Watts (who is delicious as the hooker with the heart of gold). He just can’t seem to put it all together into a narrative that is anything more than cliche-ridden and downright rote. There’s very little of the film that isn’t telegraphed from early on, including Vincent’s having a secret, softer side that no one knows about.

If it weren’t for Murray’s truly excellent performance, St. Vincent may well have gotten laughed out of the theater at TIFF instead of receiving third place in the People’s Choice vote. But when his closing credits karaoke of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” is alone worth paying the ten-dollar ticket price for, well… you got something special. It’s that kind of performance from one of Hollywood’s all-time greats.

3.5/5 stars