When I saw this film at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it was called “Imogene,” which is the name of the main character in the movie, played by Kristen Wiig. At that point, the film did not have a distributor lined up, and I decided to wait to see if they were ever going to release it to theaters before writing a review. Since it will actually be seeing a limited release this Friday, I guess now it’s fair game to write about it and to try to explain what a frustrating near-miss the whole thing turns out to be.
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have a very uneven overall filmography. I think they always seem to be totally engaged with what they’re doing, sincere about it, but it doesn’t always connect. I think “American Splendor” is pretty great, a lovely variation on the biopic genre, and their early documentary “The Last Days Of Chasen’s” was a fairly wise look at the struggle for status in LA culture and the impermanence of Los Angeles. “The Nanny Diaries”? Not so much. Not for me. And I thought “Cinema Verite” was decent, but ultimately felt like a thin version of something much meatier. “The Extra Man” is uneven, but Paul Dano and Kevin Kline are so in tune playing off each other that it pushes it over in the end.
With this one, I think it just plain never worked. Not as a script, not on the set, and not in the edit, either. Michelle Morgan’s script never quite articulates a theme, and the writing seems to swing from broad and goofy to subtle and particular with no rhyme or reason. It is a deeply confused picture, and as a result, it’s very hard to invest in to any real extent.
There’s an introductory scene where we see Imogene as a kid, and from day one she’s a drama queen, pushy and annoying. She has her reasons, though, and when we catch up with her as an adult, she’s managed to get a fingerhold on a life she believes she wants, marrying into New York City’s upper class while still trying to establish herself as a playwright. She gets dumped and has an extreme reaction to the news, and it goes so badly that she ends up being released into her mother’s custody, which is Imogene’s worst nightmare. She’s spent her entire life running from who she is and where she came from, and now she’s ordered by the courts to live there, forcing her to deal with Zelda (Annette Bening), her new boyfriend George (Matt Dillon), her brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), and a tenant who is living in Imogene’s old room, Lee (Darren Criss).
Here’s where the wacky gets cranked up all the way, and it’s also where I started to tune out. I think there’s something genuine about the idea of how hard it is for us to outrun who we were as kids and how hard people work to do exactly that. Living with your parents again, that dynamic snaps back into place, and it doesn’t matter how old you are. Those are the roles you’ve played in that family and those roles never really leave us completely. But the way it’s written and played, I don’t buy this family. George is a completely ridiculous character, and Matt Dillon seems to have wondered in from another movie altogether. He talks about being a CIA agent and spins elaborate and unlikely stories about his life, and it seems like a long way to go for no real payoff. Even worse is her brother, and I can’t blame Christopher Fitzgerald. He plays what was written, but what was written doesn’t work. He’s a blessed idiot, afraid of the world, the creator of a mechanical crab shell that allows him to deal with his anxieties when he goes out, and I just don’t believe that this character could exist this way. He’s so ruined, so barely functional, that if I’m expected to accept this as who he really is, it’s just sad, not funny. But they play it as a joke except for a few key moments.
I give full credit to both Wiig and Bening for trying as hard as they do. Wiig’s gift as a comic performer is finding a way to deliver a line that no one else would ever think of, finding both humor and heart in the characters she plays. No matter how extreme a character she’s playing, she has the ability to give you something real, and Bening is definitely working to find some middle ground with Wiig. But the script just undercuts their efforts, over and over, and even when Bob Balaban shows up late in the movie, he can’t make it come together in a way that makes it feel like it actually matters. It is frustrating precisely because these are talented people who you can see throwing every bit of craft at it that they can. While I don’t watch “Glee,” I’m at least aware that Darren Criss is well-known because of it, and he’s one of the few people who really walk away from this looking better for it. While much of what is written for him doesn’t work, he somehow makes it look completely natural and he has genuine chemistry with Wiig. It’s solid work, and in a film this uneven, it almost looks miraculous.
I wish I had something I could highlight or point out that mitigates the aggressive mediocrity of most of the film, but I don’t. It’s just flat. It’s not a film that will necessarily anger or offend anyone, but it’s one of those movies that starts to get fuzzy in hindsight within just a few hours of seeing it. Wiig left “Saturday Night Live” so she could stretch and try different things and develop material and, one would assume, have a life, and I anticipate that I’ll be watching her work for decades. I think she’s that good. But “Girl Most Likely” ends up being one of those anonymous misfires that most “SNL” alumni have littering their filmographies, and I can’t in good conscience tell anyone to spend full price to see it theatrically. This is the sort of film NetFlix was invented for, something you check out on a whim at 2 in the morning, something that will have evaporated completely by the time you wake up the next day.
“Girl Most Likely” opens Friday in limited release.