By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic
“Oh Lord. Take me now. Don’t mess with me!” pleads Vincent (Bill Murray), a disheveled, directionless drunk. The guy could drink jet fuel without a chaser. He lives alone in a dilapidated house in Brooklyn because his wife is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. He gambles on the horses and loses and is in debt up to his eyeballs. There’s got to be a reason he’s still on earth, but only God knows and He ain’t telling.
When you hire Bill Murray to star in your comedy, his eccentric curmudgeon persona comes with the deal. First-time screenwriter/director Theodore Melfi knew that and desperately wanted Murray to star in his movie, which is based on a true-life experience: Melfi attended his brother’s funeral in Tennessee and realized his niece had nowhere to go. He and his wife brought her back home to California. She attended Catholic school and had an assignment to correlate a favorite saint with someone in her real life who she thought was saintly. She chose Melfi, and her uncle got a bright idea for a sweetheart of a film.
Vincent pivots between the race track (he hasn’t won a bet since Seabiscuit died and owes a lot of money to a crooked guy – Terrence Howard), the bank (his checking account is overdrawn), a strip joint (he’s very friendly with a thick-accented Russian dancer – Naomi Watts), and the local bar (is Jack Daniels his best friend?). Vincent is stuck in an unlucky rut until a single mom named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door with her weakling of a son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie, a nurse, works long hours and can’t pick her kid up at school. She drafts Vincent into babysitting the 12-year-old, and the drunkard, who likes kids about as much as he likes non-alcoholic beer, agrees because he’s dead broke and drinks don’t buy themselves.
Ted Melfi’s script concocts a strange brood of disparate characters who bond and become an extended family. These days, when intact nuclear families are on the wane, lots of people can relate to this mélange of wayward souls looking for a port in the storm. The relationship that grows between Vincent and Oliver evolves into that of an askew surrogate dad and an impressionable little son desperate for guidance. You know the kid is getting the tough love he needs when Vincent convinces him to beat up the school bully. Don’t call Child Protective Services just yet; Vincent is on a mission.
Bill Murray was an oddball on TV’s Saturday Night Live. He was a crusader in Ghostbusters, crude in Caddyshack, a sad clown of a man in Lost in Translation. Yet, as iconic as those roles were for him, his take on Vincent is his best interpretation of a character yet and possibly the one that will win him an Academy Award. Belligerent, misunderstood, vulnerable, he plays the emotions like a magician. Jaeden Lieberher has a rare innocence and comic timing that’s instantly charming. Naomi Watts, as an over-animated stripper, chews up the scenery, much like Renee Zellwegger’s frantic star-turn in Cold Mountain. Zellwegger won an Oscar. Watts may just get nominated. Melissa McCarthy plays Maggie very low key. Terrence Howard takes a similar tact as the hard-edged debt collector.
Melfi, an astute director, sets a very eccentric and consistently endearing tone that is reminiscent of the quirky spirit of Silver Linings Playbook; just add a couple of extra chuckles and heartwarming moments. Director of photography John Lindley (You’ve Got Mail) and production designer Inbal Weinberg (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) give Brooklyn a certain blue-collar patina. Editors Sarah Flack (The Bling Ring) and Peter Teschner (Horrible Bosses) make 102 minutes go by in a flash. Costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone (Moonrise Kingdom) designed clothes that look suitably tattered. Theodore Michael Shapiro (The Devil Wears Prada) composed music that caresses the right scenes.
Oliver, who is the only Jewish boy in his Catholic School English class, is assigned the task of comparing a favorite saint with an earthly guardian angel. He didn’t have to look very far for the subject of his paper. He just had to follow the liquor fumes…
Visit NNPA Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.