First, the good news: Judy Greer has the lead in a movie.
Now, the not-so-good news: That movie is “Addicted to Fresno.”
If you’re resistant to laugh-track yucks, this comedy that revolves around a dead body and lessons learned is likely unappealing. Given significant slack, however, “Fresno” does have its charms, thanks in no small part to Greer — for once, not stuck in the small role of best friend or put-upon wife — and her co-star, Natasha Lyonne.
Lyonne herself is experiencing a renaissance thanks to her role in the lauded Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” returning to the comedic roots of her 1998 breakout, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” after a big-screen absence reportedly brought about by personal problems. Perhaps in honor of her previous role, Lyonne wears her “Beverly Hills” character’s same out-of-control ponytail as Martha, sister of Greer’s Shannon.
Whereas Martha’s got it together — owning a house, for instance, and maintaining a steady job, albeit as a motel maid in much-maligned Fresno — Shannon is just out of rehab for her sex addiction and relapsing hugely while crashing with Martha. Martha gets her sister a cleaning gig of her own, and it’s during one of Shannon’s weaker moments that she, whoops, kills a scumbag motel guest.
Now the siblings have a big, hairy body to deal with. Panic! What to do? Cover it up, of course, in the wackiest way possible, all in the name of sisterly bonding.
That the dead dude ends up being a relatively minor part of the story, especially considering that his family is involved, plays as a bit of a misstep by first-time screenwriter Karey Dornetto (“Arrested Development,” “Portlandia”) and director Jamie Babbit, another TV vet. But he’s the catalyst for the mayhem, which includes robbing a sex shop (so many dildos!) and trying to get the body cremated at a pet cemetery (which is actually not a bad idea).
“Addicted to Fresno” also features Aubrey Plaza, whose character is a bitchy fitness instructor interested in Martha; Malcolm Barrett (“Better Off Ted”) as a poet who might change Shannon’s ways; and Edward Barbanell, an actor with Down’s syndrome, playing Jerry, Martha and Shannon’s boss. If the film succeeds at nothing else, it’s got diversity down: Martha’s lesbianism is never highlighted nor underlined, Shannon is open to interracial romance, and Jerry’s the film’s most level-headed character, even giving Shannon some much-needed advice.
The laughs are mild, but at least some exist. The highlight is a bar mitzvah in which the kid of honor jumps on a stage and, after thanking his mom, dad, and “Bubbie,” proceeds to rap about things that, in a lazier comedy, would make Bubbie pass out. The sequence also features a funny seizure, if you allow yourself to believe there is such a thing.
Greer, meanwhile, proves that she’s got the range to be a headlining star. She’s mostly been allowed to show off only her comedic chops over the course of her considerable career, but in films like “The Descendants,” Greer has demonstrated a skilled ability to go deep, dark, and affecting. OK, Shannon quite obviously dry-cries in one scene, but in a monologue at a 12-step meeting, Greer adds a layer of poignancy to what heretofore had been a parade of hijinks. “The pain of doing it is not as bad as the emptiness of not doing it,” Shannon tells Martha as a way of explaining her addiction, a line to which even non-addicts will likely be able to relate.
By the film’s third act, you’ll have forgotten that Shannon accidentally killed a man. Greer and Lyonne work as sisters, with an easy and occasionally caustic back-and-forth adding to their shared red curls. It’s difficult to shake off Lyonne’s cynical “Orange Is the New Black” character and regard her as the optimistic one of the siblings — she gets as many tart one-liners as Greer — but it’s not really Martha’s story anyway. The wrap-up of “Addicted to Fresno” is too facile to be believable, but considering the film’s premise, it’s a miracle that the movie works at all.