Film Review: Girl Most Likely

Shoulda been way funnier, given the talent involved.

In the eyes of her supposedly charmed Manhattan circle, Imogene (Kristen Wiig) is a decided loser. Although the winner of a budding playwright prize, she has yet to become the new Eugenia O’Neill, has just been fired from her magazine job, been dumped by her hip Dutch boyfriend and, worst of all, comes from New Jersey. Thoroughly defeated, she somehow nightmarishly ends up in the very place she dreads most, the home of her mother Zelda (Annette Bening) in Ocean City, located in that aforementioned Garden State.

How Imogene comes to deal with her new, highly undesired situation forms the crux of the disappointing new comedy from the usually reliable directorial team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who also wrote their American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries). The problem with Girl Most Likely is the rather lazy script by Michelle Morgan, which—although taking inspiration from The Wizard of Oz, of all things—doesn’t draw the characters distinctly enough for farcical or dramatic purposes. One never feels Imogene’s misfit status as gratingly as one should until it is too late—her pain should be akin to Katharine Hepburn’s Alice Adams—and her initial shallowness, before she comes to realize how empty her Manhattan life was with its false friends, is also insufficiently established. She seems just a rather sweet if very clueless girl, stuck in a perpetual adolescence, who is not all that different by the end of the film as she is at its beginning, however many life lessons she may have learned.

Rather than incisive character development, Morgan goes in for easy outrage, with a Jersey house of eccentrics to rival those in You Can’t Take It with You, from compulsive gambler Zelda’s impulse-control disorder to her maybe ex-CIA live-in lover (Matt Dillon, trying to do a gruff De Niro comic turn) to her son Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), who’s afraid of life and obsessed with crabs. Imogene and Ralph find the whereabouts of their long-lost father (Bob Balaban), who has somehow managed to amass a Sutton Place fortune by being an expert on the American Colonial era, in a sequence that falls peculiarly flat with an unearned emotional outburst from the abandoned daughter. A big comeuppance scene for Imogene’s fake pals should also have been more satisfyingly trenchant. The climax, in which those CIA roots of Dillon’s ridiculously come to the fore, just strains belief to the snapping point.

One wishes that the directors had written the script themselves, and that Wiig in particular had taken a stab at it. The material simply defeats her; instead of her usual brazen and often hilariously knowing, waffling comic attack, she seems a weak sister, fuzzy and uncertain, with maybe too big a dollop of sweetness. We don’t need her to become the new Meg Ryan/Jennifer Aniston, and her usually strong personality evaporates under the circumstances. Bening works hard at her Jersey accent and being hard-bitten, but the role and the performance are both too sketchy. I did enjoy, as always, Natasha Lyonne, the one authentically Jersey cast member, as an amusement-park glitter-painting denizen Ralph is crushing on, but she should have been given more to do.

Some of the guys fare somewhat better than the ladies. Darren Criss, as a rather unconvincing love interest for Wiig, is nicely ardent and shows off some of his “Glee”-familiar, considerable musical chops with a droll Backstreet Boys impersonation in a tacky club (although his song is slowed down for maximum Jersey Shore cheese effect). And Christopher Fitzgerald, although his part is impossibly dweebish and spongy, manages to redeem it somewhat with sweetness and affecting innocence, even stumbling around Chinatown in a ridiculous crab costume of his own invention.