Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Life But Nothing Like It: Confused "Girl Most Likely" falls flat, despite Wiig and likable cast



Girl Most Likely (2013)
103 min., rated PG-13.

It's hard not to root for Kristen Wiig. She's the real deal and seems like she can do no wrong, even when outmatching such confused, undernourished material. In fact, she emerges unscathed all by her lonesome in the indie misfire "Girl Most Likely," a slack cocktail of soul-searching and comedic situations that doesn't shake too well. It's occasionally broad and amusingly low-key, but not funny enough, and full of would-be drama, but not emotionally honest enough to register as much of anything beyond a 90-plus-minute sitcom. Husband-and-wife directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who have been out of touch (2007's "The Nanny Diaries" and 2010's "The Extra Man") since 2003's wonderful "American Splendor," have no problem assembling a heaven-made cast for a comfy little indie, but the script by Michelle Morgan is unfocused beyond belief, packing in so much filler that we lose sight of what's even at stake.

Formerly titled "Imogene," the film follows Imogene Duncan (Wiig), a luckless, once-promising playwright whose Manhattan life is one big hang-up after she stopped producing plays and fills it with superficial socialite "friends" (including June Diane Raphael and Mickey Sumner). Her one-two punch includes being dumped by her self-absorbed Dutch boyfriend and then being promptly fired from her magazine job as a play blurb writer. Reeling from these setbacks, Imogene writes an exquisitely written suicide note and stages her last breath in hopes of getting her man back. Naturally, the last person she wants assuming responsibility for her safety after waking up in the hospital is her estranged mother, Zelda (Annette Bening), a compulsive gambler from Atlantic City. Going back to her Garden State roots, Imogene finds her mother has a suspect live-in boyfriend (Matt Dillon); realizes her painfully awkward, stunted brother, Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), won't go further than the boardwalk where he sells mollusks; and finds hunky boarder Lee (Darren Criss) living in her old room.  The crux of the plot takes place when Zelda reveals that her children's father isn't really dead, making Imogene want to get back to Manhattan even more. Will our little Imogene learn that one can go home again in order to find success?

Building her wheelhouse out of playing sadsacks on the verge of a mental breakdown after "Bridesmaids," Kristen Wiig is her usual irresistible, relatable presence. As Imogene, she is more than capable of selling a sympathetic heroine, even when she's desperate and has a meltdown after every high-pressure situation. The actress can turn lemons into lemonade, like material that has Imogene holding a petty grudge against her mother who would force her daughter to share a birthday party with Ralph as a kid. Luckily, Wiig gets to throw off funny, underplayed asides here and there, and then she's game to show her adorably dorky side when walking through a casino in a hospital gown and sporting a '90s denim vest, which she digs out from high school, to go out partying with Lee and his friends.

The rest of the cast does what it can but is mostly hung out to dry. Annette Bening is a sparky hoot, doing the wacky, tacky Jersey shtick well enough for what's there on the page, but she's surprisingly pushed to the sidelines for much of the film that mending the Imogene-Zelda relationship feels like an afterthought. Matt Dillon is slightly amusing but struggles with little to do, except be made the joke because of his obviously fake name, "George Bush" (pronounced "Bousche"), and claiming to be in the C.I.A. and favor samurai traditions. "Glee" star Darren Criss has a natural charisma in his first major feature role. Once being the leader of the Warblers on the small screen, the multi-talented actor also gets to utilize his pipes as a tribute impersonator of the Backstreet Boys. Christopher Fitzgerald also comes the closest to registering as a sweet, interesting character as Ralph, whose crab-like shell he invented will come in handy at some point. It's also nice to see Natasha Lyonne, as a "glitter expressionist" on the boardwalk, and Bob Balaban, as Imogene and Ralph's estranged father; if only they had more to add.

Blending comedy and drama can be done effectively, but it doesn't work in this case, and the moments that do work are just blips. The tone is just odd and constantly at odds with itself. If this is even a comedy, the pacing and timing are flat, as some jokes just sit there and others have a punchline without any setup (i.e. Imogene asks her mother if she was being spanked last night by her boyfriend). If this is a drama, none of the threads make more than a cursory mark. It's all so inauthentic that its climactic moment involves an international assassin (!) and then trails off into a contrived, formulaic coda, wherein Imogene picks up the pen again to write a Broadway play about her relationship with Zelda. Really? Giving us a glimpse of her play, which casts Julia Stiles and Andrea Martin as Imogene and Zelda, is more inspired than anything else. And there's no use in splitting hairs, but since when does one pump their own gas in New Jersey? While Imogene is forced to plod her way to self-discovery by the film's conclusion, "Girl Most Likely" never finds itself, while sending out mixed messages that her family of Jerseyites is kooky and dysfunctional but supposed to be lovable. The one silver lining is that Wiig, Criss, and company make the script more palatable than it should be and will surely produce better work when the material is more worthwhile. This, too, shall pass.

Grade:  C 

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