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‘St. Vincent’ makes us love the unlikable: 3 stars

12-year-old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) learns something about life from his scallywag of a neighbor (Bill Murray).
12-year-old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) learns something about life from his scallywag of a neighbor (Bill Murray).

Moviegoers may be forgiven for approaching “St. Vincent” with caution.

After all, it features Bill Murray in full-curmudgeon mode as a coot who becomes the reluctant caregiver to the son of a single mother (Melissa McCarthy).

Sounds like a gig Murray could do in his sleep, and plenty of us already have maxed out on McCarthy’s brand of overkill comedy. Moreover, the whole thing reeks of “About a Boy: Geezer Division.”

Except that it works.

With his feature debut, writer/director Theodore Melfi can be accused of dishing Hollywood cliches, but his cast’s sheer good humor and professionalism lift this yarn. And the pile of improbabilities is offset by real heart and solid laughs.

Vincent MacKenna (Murray) is a rumpled barfly. He lives in a Brooklyn house awash in trash. He drives a 1970s convertible. Vincent gets drunk nightly, plays the ponies and owes the loan sharks. He consorts with a pregnant Russian hooker/pole dancer named Daka (Naomi Watts, hysterically mercenary).

Vincent’s only love is Felix, a fluffy white cat whose sour face suggests a diet of lemons. Felix is the perfect companion for a man who has no use for anyone.

Always desperate for money, Vincent puts his misanthropy on hold and suggests that — for a fee — he sit with Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher, a real find), the 12-year-old son of his new neighbor, Maggie (McCarthy). Maggie works long hours in a hospital and often cannot pick up her kid after school.

It hardly needs saying that a friendship springs up between the seedy, venal Vincent and young Oliver. The kid is polite and smart, with the ironic outlook of someone much older.

Vincent approves. So do the rest of us. Young Lieberher is a terrific actor, endearing in his innocence, satisfying in his unexpected savvy. (Much like the young Macaulay Culkin, only without the showbiz self-awareness.)

Soon this dubious duo are enjoying days at the racetrack, nights at Vincent’s favorite watering hole. When Oliver is picked on at school, Vincent offers advice on fighting back.

Melfi’s screenplay has its dark side. Vincent has been living on fumes to pay for the nursing home where his beloved but dementia-stricken wife resides. Late in the film the crusty old sod has a health scare that allows Murray to stretch into genuinely dramatic territory.

Maggie (McCarthy blessedly plays it pretty straight) has a cheating husband who up to this point has ignored Oliver; now out of sheer orneriness he is suing for custody. You can imagine how the kid’s afternoons with Vincent go over in court.

And then there’s the rapidly expanding Daka. Is that Vincent’s baby in her belly? He’s not so sure.

The film ends in an orgy of heart-tugging (wherein the “saint” in “St. Vincent” is explained) that might have sunk another film.

But the principals are so solid — effortlessly negotiating the fine line between bathos and bawdy — that we happily chow down despite the empty calories.

Good acting can do that.

More Robert W. Butler movie reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘ST. VINCENT’

Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:43

BILL MURRAY, OSCAR NOMINEE?

Savvy studio head Harvey Weinstein will surely push Bill Murray for an Academy Award nomination for “St. Vincent,” says The Associated Press. Murray’s response?

“Oh, God, yeah. That’s what Harvey does. He’s not going to like me, but I’m just not going to get on the pony and ride from town to town, I don’t think. I hope not. Movies are magic, or they’re supposed to be something like it. Leave it alone. If you’re telling people how it works, you’re a jerk. You’re a loser that doesn’t know how to do it.

“But that running after prizes stuff, I was involved in that once before. It’s like a low-grade virus. It’s an infection when you really campaign for it. But it’s fun to win the prize because you get the chance to get up on stage and be funny.”

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