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A big, sloppy wet kiss of a movie about an old grouch, a sweet kid and their odd-couple friendship, “St. Vincent” has a couple of things going for it, mostly Bill Murray. For some time now, Mr. Murray has been burnishing his cult in Wes Anderson films, where he adds Murrayesque mystery and bite — is he deep or just dyspeptic? — and his unforgettable silent-clown mug to Mr. Anderson’s worlds of wonder. Sometimes, Mr. Murray pops up for a paycheck, while at other times, he slips into a character that promises something more than the usual slop offered men over 60, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson” or an architect on a World War II mission in “The Monuments Men.”
Mr. Murray is 64 now, or 105 in American movie industry years, which means he’s transitioned into codgerdom. The business has always found a way to employ its silver foxes and grizzled geezers, one reason there are so many variations on the codger, including the leathery badass (John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Liam Neeson); the comic coot (Gabby Hayes, Walter Brennan); the wise elder (hello, Morgan Freeman); and the scrooge, both unreconstructed and reformed (Lionel Barrymore in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the voice of Ed Asner in “Up”). The scrooge is a particularly durable type, because his struggle is with his own self, and because his transformation has the feeling of a revelation even as it’s also hard won, having transpired over a long night into memory and soul.
It’s a character that Mr. Murray knows something about, having played a version in the 1988 comedy “Scrooged.” “St. Vincent” isn’t technically a redo of “A Christmas Carol” (and God bless us, everyone), but its writer and director, Theodore Melfi, has borrowed from so many fictional forefathers that Dickens is just built into his script’s DNA. Mr. Murray’s character, Vincent, lives alone with his cat (cats are the new dogs), in a run-down Brooklyn house that’s some movie person’s idea of a working-class Miss Havisham tear-down. Cluttered, gloomy and brown, the house is an art-directed portrait of desolation, with scary granny wallpaper and beaten-down furniture that suggest its occupant either gave up the fight a long time ago or is a serial killer.
Mr. Melfi’s quick-sketch setup makes it clear Vincent isn’t bad, and not only because he’s played by Mr. Murray, whose world-weary shtick is now as purely decorative as a string of puka beads. Vincent is just a bit more unkempt than the usual curmudgeon who’s being prepped for uplift. He smokes, drinks, gambles and apparently doesn’t dust. He isn’t polite to bankers. He is nice, though, to a pregnant Russian prostitute, Daka (Naomi Watts, wearing a stomach prosthesis and a beautiful tight smile), who’s first seen playing giddy-up horsey with Vincent, her swollen belly bouncing. Daka is an impossible creation (heart of gold, buns of steel) who’s saved — as is true throughout this exasperating movie — by an actor who roots around in a cliché and pulls out something human.
The same is true of Melissa McCarthy, who as Vincent’s new neighbor, Maggie, takes a conceit and layers it with complication, and by a wonderful Jaeden Lieberher, who plays her 12-year-old, Tiny Tim. (He’s actually named Oliver!) The actors don’t do all the heavy lifting by themselves. The uniformly good performances make it clear that Mr. Melfi knows how to handle actors, and there are some funny bits — a Tom-and-Jerry knockabout performed solo by Mr. Murray — that suggest Mr. Melfi needs to let his inner Jerry Lewis out more often. He needs to cut loose in other ways, too: His dialogue can have the cadence of real life, but his scenes and situations tend to be canned. The story — Vincent starts babysitting for Oliver, a friendship is born and tested — is the least of it. Resistance is understandable but futile.
“St. Vincent” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Cigarettes and sentimentality.