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TIFF 2014, Day Two: "St. Vincent"

St. Vincent

An ill-timed drenching rainstorm did little to dampen the spirits of those waiting in line outside of the Princess of Wales Theatre for Friday night’s world premiere of “St. Vincent.”

Those resounding claps of thunder would soon be joined by cheering ovations inside. One look at Bill Murray on stage, bedecked with a gold crown and red sash in honor of his TIFF-appointed namesake holiday, and all thoughts of soggy suits, waterlogged designer pumps and flattened hairdos disappeared. Joining him briefly before the lights went down were cast mates Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Naomi Watts and newcomer Jaiden Lieberher, whose comic delivery is already aces as McCarthy’s bullied 12-year-old son, Oliver.

Theodore Melfi, “St. Vincent’s” writer and first-time director, shared a phrase that Murray regularly employs to rally the on-set troops each day–“Let’s go someplace nice.” But his debut effort went much beyond merely “nice,” considering its central character is a rude, drunken boor who steals apples, can’t keep a dime in his pocket and likes to engage in behavior that often results in someone getting hurt, especially himself.

From the opening moment, when Murray’s loutish war vet Vin tells a terrible Irish joke to his fellow neighborhood barflies, you could feel that the audience was ready to fall in love with this piss-and-vinegary slice of blue-collar Brooklyn life.

Imagine a Wes Anderson film–complete with precocious prepubescent schoolboy hero and the perfect eclectic soundtrack that finds room for the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” as well as several haunting tracks by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy–that has divested itself of all manner of foppish frippery and dropped that overtly polite crap. If Murray wore the thrift-shop rejects that pass for his wardrobe in one of Anderson’s just-so tales, the director would probably have the set regularly fumigated.

However, what is especially nice about “St. Vincent” is that it feels lived-in and its characters seem like they could actually exist (in fact, Melfi revealed that Murray’s ill-tempered scoundrel is based on own father-in-law).

You could believe that McCarthy’s desperate soon-to-be-single mom might entrust her only child to wayward Vin’s potentially psyche-warping care. Or that Aussie native Watts is a no-nonsense pregnant Russian stripper (her bulging-belly gyrations need to be seen) as well as Vin’s weekly “lady of the night.” Her dynamite Daka and Kate Mulgrew’s wily Red from “Orange Is the New Black” could make a beautiful buddy comedy together. And O’Dowd does Barry Fitzgerald and his black-frocked proud by picking up the slack in wisecracking Irish Catholic priests in recent movie comedies.

But it all depends on the deadpan chemistry between rascally Vin and wee Oliver (with an assist from Vin’s adorable Persian cat, whose face is like a smooshed-in pumpkin). I am happy to report that Murray has found one of his best playmates since he and Ms. Scarlett made the rounds in Tokyo during “Lost in Translation” in young Mr. Lieberher, as they share questionable after-school pursuits. That the audience broke out in applause over Vin’s aggressive mode of intervention after Oliver is set upon by a trio of bullies proves that his mom wasn’t so wrong in her babysitter choice.

This is one of the best kinds of Murray showcases, one that allows the 63-year-old actor room to do his funny stuff, do a little dance and sing a closing credits song and–even more impressively–get a chance to reveal by the final third of “St. Vincent" that he is also a fine dramatic performer, too. All I know is that I am itching to try out his response to a telemarketer–“Come on, coward! Try to sell me something!”–just to see what happens.

There was a Q&A that followed the film, with all the actors and Melfi returning to the stage that was somewhat delayed by a long and well-deserved standing ovation that reminded me of the overwhelming warm response to “Juno” in 2007. TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey admirably struggled to get a straight answer out of a bunch of highly trained jokers but thankfully only partially succeeded.

When asked about cornering the notoriously hard-to-reach Murray as his star, Melfi said, “Bill finds what Bill’s supposed to do.” And for why he thought of the actor, Murray chimed in to much laughter, “Because he couldn’t get Jack Nicholson.” He later addressed what it was like to work with a beginner director: “One, they don’t know anything. Two, you have to speak to them in a calm, quiet way so you can teach them what to do.”

Both Murray and McCarthy seemed to be as moist-eyed from viewing “St. Vincent” for the first time as those in the audience. He said that the goal was “to avoid being schmaltzy and we almost did.”

Inevitably asked what was it like to work with the funniest “Ghostbuster,” Lieberher acquitted himself well: “He’s a tough guy to act with, definitely. It’s really fun to work with Bill and really funny and it was rewarding.“ McCarthy sounded even more awestruck by the opportunity to work with Murray, saying, “It’s still kind of dreamy.”

Of course, this being Toronto, people were heard already parsing “St. Vincent’s” Oscar chances. For McCarthy, who was previously nominated for her supporting work in "Bridesmaids," her reward was to be able to relax as sort of the straight woman for once while still earing chuckles and let Murray roar the raunch. Most of the chatter seems to suggest that Watts might find her way into the supporting category and that Murray has a very outside chance in a year already stockpiled with strong male performances.

In any case, moviegoers will be the ultimate winners when the film comes out in theaters Oct. 10.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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