I don’t really think people have lackadaisical impressions of Kristen Wiig; you either love her and think she was one of the best parts of Saturday Night Live and a revelation in Bridesmaids, or you think her characters on SNL were repetitive and she herself somewhat overrated. There’s a strict divide, I think, and it won’t be helped by Girl Most Likely, Wiig’s first starring role since 2010. Your reactions will either be, “Oh, this is only passable and tolerable because of Wiig’s charisma,” or … Well, actually, there is no “or” option, because this movie isn’t going to attract people who don’t like Wiig. She’s the only reason to see Girl Most Likely.
Because otherwise, what you’re getting is a fairly standard romantic comedy that suggests, as almost all of these genre films do, that a woman in her 30s is stuck in an inevitable existential crisis that will challenge her sense of femininity, identity, and selfhood. And sure, Darren Criss from Glee is in this one, being adorable and charming and overall the handsome devil he is, but there is very little to tweak this formula. These are quirky characters in a quirky world doing quirky things and realizing that they all love each other for that very quirkiness. Quirk! It’s keeping indie films afloat.
Girl Most Likely, written by Michelle Morgan and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, focuses on Imogene (Wiig), a former playwright who has faded into obscurity after her successful debut. Although she received a grant to support the writing of her follow-up, things just never gelled, and so years later she’s stuck in regret, writing about other people’s Broadway productions, living with a jerk boyfriend who won’t marry her, and surrounded by friends who critique her clothes and her personality and her entire life. New York City isn’t all Imogene expected it to be, and when she gets fired from her job and dumped by her boyfriend on the same day, she’s at a loss for what’s next. A suicide attempt? OK!
But this isn’t your typically serious endeavor; it’s just Imogene trying to get her boyfriend’s attention (she only takes one pill). Nevertheless, everyone else freaks out about it, eventually leading to Imogene being placed on 72-hour suicide watch—under the supervision of her gambling-addicted, white trash mother Zelda (Annette Bening), whom Imogene has been avoiding for the majority of her adult life. Yet going back to Ocean City, New Jersey, with her mother is Imogene’s only option, and so she’s thrust back into this world, with her mom’s obliviousness; her mother’s boyfriend George’s (Matt Dillon) delusions of being a CIA agent; and her brother Ralph’s (Christopher Fitzgerald) bizarreness. It’s hard to connect with your sibling when he’s more interested in building a crab-like exoskeleton for himself than getting to know what’s going on in your life.
And so Imogene’s only option at any kind of relatable companionship is Lee (Criss), an Ivy Leaguer who went to Yale but now devotes his passion to a Backstreet Boys cover band. Dressed in all-white, exactly like the ‘90s group, he performs at a nightclub, doesn’t care what people think, and is generally doing the damn thing—exactly what Imogene can’t bring herself to do. So caught up in her frustrations against her mother and against herself, Imogene just can’t figure out who she is. Can Lee help her do that? Or should she be doing it all by herself?
The problem with all this is, of course, that even great performances can’t completely overshadow the film’s formulaic nature. As much as Wiig is game for anything, from playing a frazzled, underworked New Yorker to a more calmed-down beachcomber, the arc of her character is pretty expected; once Criss’s Lee is introduced, you know you’ll sleep together, you know he’ll teach her to trust her instincts and be more impulsive, you know the film will find ways to throw them together. A similar ho-humness is present in the characters of George and Ralph, who are bizarre for no reason whatsoever. Is George insane, to be so stuck to the idea of working for the CIA? Does Ralph have some kind of mental illness? The answers we want as viewers don’t ever really appear.
The biggest issue with Girl Most Likely, then, is that it likes to build characters toward what it considers to be funny moments without any real emotional development or investment, and so there’s this distance for us as the audience as we look for more substance than would be present in a typical romantic comedy about a woman who might be a little bit crazy. But Girl Most Likely isn’t willing to take chances, even if Wiig is, and that’s a disappointment. It’s not an insufferable film, but it’s buried under what could have been.