Pop quiz time: Say you made an acclaimed, Academy Award-nominated movie about a working-class artist, followed by two limp and forgettable comedies about bright young people at sea among obnoxious and awful Manhattan society types.
For your new film, would you (a) strike out in a bold new direction, (b) consider doing another movie that played to the strengths of your first and most successful movie, or (c) tackle yet another badly written and charmless story of a gamine being spiritually eaten alive on the mean streets of New York City?
Sadly, documentarians-turned-narrative-filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini chose “c.” Apparently hell-bent on making us forget that they were responsible for the sublime “American Splendor,” they have now scored a hat trick of miserable comedies, with their latest, “Girl Most Likely,” picking up where the disappointing “The Extra Man” and “The Nanny Diaries” left off.
“Girl Most Likely” is the kind of movie destined to become the answer to the rhetorical question, “With a cast this good, how bad can it be?” You might think that any film featuring Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss (not to mention supporting turns by Bob Balaban, Natasha Lyonne and June Diane Raphael) would have some redeeming qualities, but you would be incorrect.
Wiig stars as Imogene, a vapid New Yorker who runs with the snobby Manhattan A-listers despite her New Jersey roots. In rapid succession she loses her wealthy boyfriend and cushy magazine job; when she stages a fake suicide to get her fella back — everyone agrees the note was exquisitely written — all she gets for her troubles is being remanded to the care of her estranged mother Zelda (Bening), a compulsive gambler.
Imogene wants desperately to get back to Manhattan, particularly after Zelda reveals that Imogene’s father isn’t really dead but simply abandoned the family, but circumstances conspire to keep her stuck in the clapboard Ocean City house that Zelda shares with boyfriend George (Dillon), Imogene’s mollusk-obsessed brother Ralph (Broadway star Christopher Fitzgerald, creating the closest thing to a memorable character here) and boarder Lee (Criss), a former Yalie who currently fronts a Backstreet Boys tribute band in an Atlantic City ’90s revue.
We learn that Imogene was a once-promising playwright who became a vapid materialist when the words stopped flowing, and over the course of the movie she discovers that her New York pals are fair-weather phonies while her friends and relatives in New Jersey are the genuine salt-of-the-earth types who really care. (“I forgot that hanging out with regular people could be such an enthralling experience,” she observes on a boozy night out with Lee and his fellow show-folk.)
All of this sounds much funnier on paper; when a recently hospitalized Imogene wakes up in the back of Zelda’s Trans Am in a casino parking lot, or when Imogene attends a fancy party wearing one of her old high school dresses because her current clothes are inside the apartment from which she’s been evicted, you get the idea that this is supposed to be comedic, but there’s no laugh there.
Wiig made us roar and cringe with her “Bridesmaids” character, who was reeling from the failure of her business venture, but Imogene is too judgmental and unlikeable for us to care about and too adrift and vulnerable for us to enjoy her humiliation. Michelle Morgan’s thudding screenplay never establishes interesting characters or even a consistent tone, turning its snobs and slobs alike into flat, dull cartoons.
And with the exception of Morgan, everyone here has done much better work in the past. As for this mess, it’s Most Likely to get left off of a lot of résumés.