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Atsushi Nishijima, The Weinstein Company
Melissa McCarthy, left, Jaeden Lieberher, center, and Naomi Watts star in “St. Vincent.”

“ST. VINCENT” — ★★★½ — Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher; PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language); in general release

There's an amusing story going around the Internet about how director Theodore Melfi managed to recruit Bill Murray to play the lead in his new film, "St. Vincent." Murray is incredibly hard to track down — he reportedly has no agent, and insists that everyone contact him through his personal 800 number — and Melfi's tale sounds like something out of a hardboiled detective novel.

There had to be many times along the way that Melfi questioned whether his effort was worth it, but after seeing Murray in the finished product, any doubt should wash away. Bill Murray is probably the only man alive who could play the lead in this film.

In its nuts-and-bolts form, "St. Vincent" isn't all that original. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to 2002's "About a Boy," which adapted Nick Hornby's popular novel about a childish adult who finds redemption through his friendship with an awkward child.

Hugh Grant's performance as Hornby’s shallow roustabout living off his parents' fortune is effective, and "About a Boy" is an endearing movie. But Murray's performance in "St. Vincent" is something special. Even with a career full of iconic roles, it's hard to think of a time he has brought this much weight to a character.

Murray plays a truly awful creature named Vincent MacKenna, who lives alone in a dilapidated home in Brooklyn. When he isn’t piddling away his time drinking, gambling and watering the dust bowl he calls a backyard, he’s consorting with an equally miserable pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Naomi Watts). Vincent is the kind of guy who drives over his own fence when he comes home in a drunken stupor, then finds a way to connive his neighbor into taking blame for the incident.

The neighbor is Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a recent divorcee who just moved in next door with her 12-year-old son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie has to work long hours at her hospital job to pay for Oliver's private school, which consequently leaves Oliver all the more vulnerable to the bullies who torment him.

Enter Vincent. For a price, Vincent is willing to baby sit Oliver, and Maggie agrees, unaware that in Vincent's vernacular, "baby sitting" usually involves trips to the horse track and other undesirable locales.

It's a simple premise, all designed to provide a foundation for Vincent's character arc. Over the course of the film, we learn more about the heartbreaking source of his misery and the true perilous depth of his vices. Vincent is a terrible influence and a hero to Oliver almost simultaneously, and the pair's hijinks only complicate Maggie's efforts to secure full custody of her son.

Through it all, Murray gives a masterful performance, wearing his trademark world-weary stare, lingering just past exasperation on the cusp of total defeat. He's funny and sad and pathetic all at the same time, and he brings sympathy to a character that would repulse most of us in real life.

Though Murray is the star, his supporting cast is excellent, especially Lieberher, who more than holds his own next to the comic veteran. McCarthy's manic fervor is more restrained and likable, and the usually glamorous Watts is anything but as Daka. It's a miserable bunch, but they give the film a feeling of authenticity that most Hollywood productions lack.

If there's any flaw to "St. Vincent," it's a third-act climax that feels a bit too forced and sentimental. But given the quality of what leads up to it, it's a forgivable flaw. And anyone who skips out too early will miss out on a hilarious “duet” Murray performs with Bob Dylan over the closing credits.

“St. Vincent” is an uplifting film, but parents should understand that it isn’t an easy film to watch. It may technically be a PG-13 movie with a positive message of redemption, but in order to tell that story, "St. Vincent" goes places kids probably shouldn't follow.

“St. Vincent” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language; running time: 103 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.