Bill Murray shines in this story of a cynical grump whose life is changed by his friendship with a bright young kid. Writer-director Theodore Melfi makes an assured debut with this hilariously astute, emotional punchy drama, which may sometimes feel a bit over-planned but gives the audience plenty to think about. And along with Murray, the film has especially strong roles for Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and promising newcomer Jaeden Lieberher.

It's set in a New York suburb, where the neighbourhood grouch Vincent (Murray) is already having a bad day when he discovers meets the perky family next door: Maggie (McCarthy) and her curious son Oliver (Lieberher). She has just fled from her unfaithful husband (Scott Adsit) and is working extra hours to make ends meet, so she reluctantly agrees to let Oliver stay at Vincent's house after school. Intriguingly, Oliver is one of the few people Vincent can bear to be around, aside from the pregnant Russian stripper Daka (Watts) and his lively cat Felix. And Oliver is like a sponge, happily soaking up Vincent's knowledge about things like swearing, fighting and betting on the horses. Oliver has no real idea that all of this makes Vincent a seriously unsuitable role model.

Yes, the central point is that good people are sometimes hard to spot. Vincent may smoke, swear, gamble and hang out with hookers, but he also has a deep soul that Oliver witnesses in the way he takes care of Daka, or how he regularly visits his wife in a nursing home even though she has long forgotten who he is. Melfi makes the most of this perspective, seeing everything through the eyes of perceptive young actor Lieberher. And Murray shines in a role that adds clever shadings to the actor's usual on-screen bluster. The interaction between Oliver and Vincent snaps with personality, and sharp roles for McCarthy and Watts offer meaningful wrinkles, as do other side characters such as Chris O'Dowd's schoolteacher.

Continue reading: St. Vincent Review