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, with 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 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. (Andrew Parker)
Saturday, September 6th, 12:00pm, Roy Thomson Hall
Friday, September 12th, 9:30pm, Princess of Wales