As she proved for seven seasons on Saturday Night Live and in her breakout movie comedy Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig is a triple threat – pretty, funny and poignant, especially when she plays a woman struggling to maintain her dignity in the midst of a meltdown.
But Wiig doesn’t get much of a chance to display that skill set in the quirky dramedy Girl Most Likely. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (credits include the wonderful American Splendor and the unfortunate The Nanny Diaries) never find the right comic-dramatic balance, and seem reluctant to allow the story to breathe.
In her first starring film role since 2011’s Bridesmaids (which she co-wrote), Wiig plays Imogene Duncan, who has a lot in common with maid of honour Annie Walker. She’s a prickly, mid-thirties woman from New Jersey who discovers her once promising life is falling apart.
An early scene shows Imogene as a child playing Dorothy in a production of The Wizard of Oz, where she challenges the script’s conclusion that Dorothy would ever want to go home again. These days, since winning a playwriting fellowship years before, she has been spinning her wheels creatively, working for a consumer magazine, clinging to her obviously bored boyfriend, Peter (Brian Petsos), and trying unsuccessfully to fit in with his snooty East Side friends.
Things rapidly fall apart. Peter dumps her. She loses her job. After faking a suicide attempt to win her beau back, Imogene finds herself in a hospital psych ward. When Peter fails to show up to rescue her, she’s committed to the care of her estranged mother, Zelda (Annette Bening), and forced to move back to the ramshackle Atlantic City home she grew up in.
And what a household it is. Aging sex kitten Zelda – dressed in a red wig, glittery blouses, stretch pants and heels – is also a gambling addict. Her latest lover is George (played by a growly and dishevelled Matt Dillon), who claims to be a secret government agent. Imogene’s childlike, disturbed younger brother, Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), spends his time building a fibreglass exoskeleton so he can be more like the crabs he adores. Meanwhile, Imogene’s bedroom has been rented out to Lee ( of TV’s Glee), a Yale-educated musician who’s singing in a Backstreet Boys tribute band at a casino. Like Imogene, he once had a lot of potential, but got stuck in mediocrity.
This synopsis, with its one quirk per character, almost begs for the addendum: “Coming to television this fall.” Girl Most Likely has the unmistakable components of a post-Modern Family, post-Arrested Development manic-family sitcom. You can even identify which subplots should be jettisoned if it were to survive the mid-season cull: Get rid of George the spy guy; dump Ralph and his crab obsession.
Over the course of its 103-minute running time, Girl Most Likely keeps piling on the absurdities, culminating in a sequence in which Lee drives Imogene and Ralph to New York to meet the father they had been told had died years before during “a routine colonoscopy.” Okay, not so hilarious.
Yet there are moments to make you honestly wish it were a better movie, and that the semi-autobiographical screenplay by Michelle Morgan didn’t feel so much like a first draft. The premise, of a creatively blocked artist moving back home and finding a source of inspiration in all the emotional clutter she once rejected, is a rich one.
Occasionally, the cast rises above the material. Wiig and Criss click easily in their older woman/younger man bond, which feels less about passion than kindred souls helping each other through a rough patch. And Bening, who makes trashy look fun, has a moving scene when, against her dishonest instincts, Zelda fumbles her way through an apology to her daughter. Voila, she delivers the story’s missing ingredient: evidence of identifiable human emotion.