In what might be Bill Murray’s best chance at Oscar gold yet, the comedic actor plays a boorish, loutish, scoundrel who helps a young man learn how to stand up for himself. It’s basically a kinder, gentler, funnier Gran Torino (or a white trash, Brooklyn version of his character in Rushmore) mixed with a classic inspirational weepy. It’s effective and filled with great performances, but to quote a line often repeated throughout Theodore Melfi’s film, “it is what it is.”
Vincent McKenna (Murray) wants to be left alone to drink, chain smoke, gamble, and have sex with a pregnant Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts, WAY against type) in peace. That all changes with the arrival of young Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher in his first screen credit) and his recently divorced mom (Melissa McCarthy) next door. Desperately trying to keep her job as a hospital worker, mom enters into an unlikely agreement with Vincent to look after her kid when she’s not around. Vincent teaches Oliver how to stand up for himself, how to bet on horse races, and to just generally be a jerk, but the more Oliver finds out about why Vincent is such an asshole, the more sympathetic their relationship becomes.
Melfi’s film changes up almost entirely about an hour in with a major development that will make more of a case for Murray as an actor than his still pretty great old school Brooklynite routine. His chemistry with Lieberher, who will definitely be remembered for his work here, is impeccable; both making the most of some whip smart comedic timing. It’s also nice to see McCarthy get a chance to play the straight woman, and a sequence where she breaks down about her plight in front of Oliver’s Catholic school teachers (played by Chris O’Dowd) is a true highlight.
It’s also apparent that this is a first feature from Melfi, but first films usually come equipped with more emotion than technical acumen. Visually the film feels somewhat stuck in the 1980s despite the modern setting. He’s clearly watched Murray’s other attention getting performances, so he certainly knows how to frame the actor. He just isn’t casting anyone here in a particularly new and different light with the exceptions of McCarthy and Watts. It could stand some trimming here and there, and Melfi isn’t as comfortable with the more uplifting aspects of the film’s second half, but when he allows these characters to act like human beings and not actors in a film forwarding a plot, he’s hitting his marks nicely.
It also might be overstuffed with reasons why Vincent is the way he is, but the joke is that the character hates long stories and he’d prefer to just skip to the ending. Melfi certainly works for and earns his ending here with the sweetness for once arising from some pretty great bitterness. The film isn’t laugh out loud funny, but there’s definitely something here worth catching even when the film ramps up to its grandstanding, crowd pleasing conclusion that feels more like a means to an end than an earned, heartwarming moment.