Something like a cross between classic children’s literature and one of Meg Cabot’s adult novels, Girl Most Likely pulls off the difficult feat of being quirky without being goofy. Central to this balance is sympathetic lead Imogene (Kristen Wiig), a once-promising playwright who earns her appeal through a New Jersey outsiderness amidst an excess of New York snobbery. Though the awkward comedy that ensues when these two worlds collide sets a rich early tone, it proves no match for the nuttiness she faces once her Manhattan life crumbles and she’s forced back home to Ocean City. There, atop the shame of failure, Imogene must contend with the antics of her gambling addict mom Zelda (Annette Bening), crustacean-obsessed brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), and Zelda’s alleged CIA agent boyfriend George Bousche (Matt Dillon), the combination of which turns Imogene’s already fragile sanity into a minefield of cinematic potential.
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the team behind American Splendor) with a whip-smart script by Michelle Morgan (Middle of Nowhere), the film arranges each brand of crazy like a symphony, allowing these characters to find peace in their dysfunction. Unlike many recent comedic efforts, whose heightened slapstick and hyperbolic characters seem to operate in an alternate universe, the crises here are very much of the world. This realistic approach in turn keeps the eccentricities in check, allowing Imogene and her family to explore their damaged dynamics and patch up their mangled lives. The results aren’t always pretty and certain revelations are downright hurtful, but accompanied by well-executed gags, the pain becomes far easier to accept.
While the dry humor and bizarre actions are sharply delivered on their own, additional pleasure is derived from Imogene’s response to such stimuli. Few performers are better at a reactionary face than Wiig and with lovable oddballs all around, she gets plenty of chances to show off her moves. Such looks get a workout in a memorable standoff with a librarian and perhaps most memorably at the casino show of Lee (Darren Criss), a 20something who’s been renting her childhood room. As he and his fellow Backstreet Boy impersonators bust out “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” quick cuts to Imogene reveal shock and amazement, rounding out her range with the distinct guilty pleasure of silent singalong.
The wacky fun continues until Girl Most Likely’s final few scenes, where the graceful manner with which its quirkiness had been doled out is suddenly betrayed. Tying up each narrative arc a bit too tidily, the finale plays out as a dash to the end credits, the goofiness at last escaping its bonds. Even with a fun Whit Stillman cameo, in which the filmmaker comes off as eerily similar to Ralph, there’s a sense of a botched conclusion, though the preceding accomplishments are only lessened so much. By that point, the filmmakers and gifted cast have already achieved such memorable whimsy that the comedic victories will linger long after the disappointment wears off.
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language.
Girl Most Likely is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.