In Girl Most Likely, a likable but warmed-over comedy about rediscovering the nutso family you thought was holding you back, the gifted Kristen Wiig plays Imogene, a playwright on the skids after a brief sojourn into minor Manhattan celebrity.
Like Annie, Wiig's downsized cupcake artiste in Bridesmaids, Imogene comes to us just as she's losing her day job, her apartment and her caddish boyfriend. Only it's not just the role that's torn from Bridesmaids; it's most of the performance, too. Wiig plays Imogene exactly as she played Annie, with the same stricken eyes, the same airy hand-waves to demonstrate desperate resilience, the same frequent lapses into self-immolating misbehavior.
She does it well, to be sure, but twice is gilding a fairly fragile lily, even with different hair. Let us all agree that Wiig was terrific in Bridesmaids, and let us stipulate that she is fine here. But as the actress makes the leap from comedian to movie star, she might want to consider whether she really wants to get stuck unto eternity playing women on the verge.
Like Annie, too, Imogene resists change — often, especially in comedies, a sign of imminent rehab. When her life collapses in ruins, she keeps trying to claw it back as is; no matter how futile the recognition-grubbing, the clinging to feckless guys and fair-weather friends, Imogene wants to stick with the program, if only because the absent father she idolizes would do the same. So when she's forced to beat a retreat to the Ocean City family she's been trying to escape all her life, it feels like the last straw.
Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini made their reputation with the wonderfully weird Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor, then cemented it with the well-received Cinema Verite, an HBO movie about the reality TV pioneers the Loud family. They seem less comfortable, though, with conventional populist fare — and Girl Most Likely winks its homespun message in the first scene, with a famous line from The Wizard of Oz.
Berman and Pulcini are on home ground with weirdness, though, and the movie's better scenes are in the overstuffed ancestral home, despite the fact that Imogene's nearest if not dearest carry on as if they're in an unusually jolly Christopher Durang play.
There are bursts of sharp writing from scripter Michelle Morgan. Annette Bening can always be relied upon to upgrade a standard-issue floozy mom; ditto Bob Balaban as a stranger from Imogene's past.
It's lovely and pleasant to hear again from Matt Dillon as Mom's yarn-spinning boyfriend, while Glee's Darren Criss certainly makes appetizing cougar bait. And I did enjoy the film's main recurring sight gag, a mollusk-shaped shell house schlepped around Manhattan by Imogene's shut-in brother (Christopher Fitzgerald). Even at its best, though, Girl Most Likely is rarely more than disposable fun.
It is, however, another example of a weird disconnect I've noticed between the prevailing punditry about young women today and the way they're represented in popular entertainment. Women are taking over the work world, I keep hearing; they have little use for men; they're ambitious careerist minxes driving the hook-up adventurism said to be sweeping America's colleges.
Yet beginning with Bridget Jones's Diary and on into Girls — and Frances Ha, and probably a bunch of Web series you're likely never to see — what I see on screens big and small are women falling apart for lack of creative work, or for lack of lovers who'll stay all night, let alone stay the course.
The critic in me watches Girls and thinks that Lena Dunham really has her finger on the pulse of modern love, for want of a better word. My inner parent is appalled at the joyless sexual exploitation my teenage daughter may grow up to inherit. I don't know whether Imogene — who still wants love — is behind the curve, or ahead of it. But at least she's trying.