Bill Murray’s primary occupation these days is playing the beloved Zen trickster of our popular culture. He’ll show up at some guy’s beer bash or photo bomb a random wedding party; when “St. Vincent” premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, Murray took to the streets and shook hands with fans in the middle of a torrential downpour, smiling that Cheshire grin. He’s a rebel without an agent, the nation’s crazy uncle. Any movies he makes at this point are profoundly secondary.
So it is with “St. Vincent,” which might be Murray’s “Gran Torino” if you squint at it from one angle, or “Old Meatballs” if you come at it from another. Written and directed by Theodore Melfi, it’s a comic heart-tugger with ancient roots, the tale of a cranky coot who gets redeemed — just enough — when he reluctantly befriends and inspires a young boy.
What is Murray doing in this sort of tapioca? Well, it lets him horse around with a Brooklyn accent, for one thing. The star was content for decades to work profitable variations on his core persona — that’s pretty much the definition of a movie star, actually — but lately he has turned to acting. Maybe he’s bored; maybe that’s the only explanation for his valiant but meshuggeneh Franklin D. Roosevelt in 2012’s “Hyde Park on Hudson.”
He doesn’t need the accent for us to buy into what he’s doing in “St. Vincent,” but, OK, whatever. Vincent is the neighborhood reprobate, a drinking, gambling, shambling retiree who Grouchos through each day, triangulating from his run-down home to the Belmont Park racetrack to the bar where his credit is running dry.
Then he gets new neighbors, and the biggest surprise is that Melissa McCarthy is playing a real person, more or less: Maggie, a stressed-out med-tech single mom fleeing a bad marriage along with her 10-year-old son, Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Through some strained heavy lifting on the part of Melfi the screenwriter, Vincent becomes the primary caregiver for the kid.
Oliver is one of those preternaturally wise misfits who gets regularly beaten down at school until his mentor teaches him the arts of defense and psych-outs. “St. Vincent” mines much of its humor from the old dog dragging the kid to the racetrack, the bars, and other assorted no-nos. What passes for Vincent’s girlfriend is Daka, a pregnant Russian prostitute who is played by Naomi Watts in what may be the most cringe-worthy performance of her entire career.
Vincent can’t be that bad, though, can he? Of course not; there are hearts to warm and tickets to sell. Bit by bit, “St. Vincent” reveals its hero’s shabby selflessness: He was a Vietnam vet with stories he won’t share, and there’s a woman (Donna Mitchell) in a nearby nursing home with a certain claim on Vincent’s attention. When Oliver’s homeroom teacher, a hip priest named Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), assigns each student to make a case for his or her favorite saint, the kid has his man.
Dear sweet Jesus, really? Is this what Bill Murray has come to? “St. Vincent” is maudlin enough to gin up a climactic medical emergency and a teary school assembly in which All Becomes Clear; the filmmakers are to be commended, at least, for steering clear of the defibrillator paddles. Yet the movie also has the good sense to let Murray be Murray. At one point, we just watch Vincent sit in his back yard lounger listening to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” on an ancient Walkman and singing along with tuneless, unerring grace. It’s a moment both stupid and magical, and it plays like a throwback all the way to Murray’s first “Saturday Night Live” seasons, when he was the class goofball who’d somehow wandered into the big time.
The scenes between him and McCarthy are also choice, two natural clowns seeing what happens when they rein it in. McCarthy especially seems happy for the chance to play an actual woman, with actual problems, and she’s quite affecting. By contrast, Murray negotiates the sentimentality of “St. Vincent” by hitting his marks and remaining above the fray, which is both right for the character and true to the Zen of Bill Murray. Not since W.C. Fields has an actor seemed so brilliantly unconcerned about the movies in which he finds himself.