When Bridesmaids broke out in 2011, Kristen Wiig seemed poised to become the next big comedy star, following in the footsteps of rarified fellow Saturday Night Live alumni like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. In the few years since, though, Wiig has shown admirably little interest in cashing in on her massive success, leaving her Bridesmaids costar Melissa McCarthy to jump ahead and become a major box office attraction. The closest Wiig has come to a comedy-star trajectory is booking her upcoming roles in Anchorman 2 (said to be a small part, and the kind of comic ensemble she probably would’ve joined regardless of Bridesmaids) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (a sweet-natured if minor love-interest role in a surprisingly ambitious family film).
For the most part, Wiig seems to prefer smaller, purportedly less broad projects like Girl Most Likely, recently out on DVD. She plays a character called Imogene, and you can tell it used to be the title role (the movie’s name was changed somewhere between its film-festival plays and its theatrical release) because everyone else in the movie says her name constantly, as if preparing for one of those trailer montages that cut between ten or 12 different utterances of a name in rapid succession.
Imogene was once a promising young playwright who won a prestigious grant but failed to produce an actual script; now she’s floundering in New York City, just barely hanging on to her semi-high-society life when an unceremonious break-up with her boyfriend sends her into a tailspin. An ill-advised faked suicide attempt summons doctors, who in turn call her mother Zelda (Annette Bening) and remand Imogene to her care—in dreaded New Jersey.
So as it turns out, Girl Most Likely has plenty in common with Bridesmaids; that is sharing that movie’s sense of 30-something melancholy, rather than its big comic set pieces. It’s one of a recent spate of movies about women in their 30s facing down romantic and professional failure by regression, and often moving back home with their parents, including this year’s The Lifeguard and 2012’s Hello, I Must Be Going. These films may well have been in place before Bridesmaids hit it big, but it’s still surprising to find the less audience-friendly aspects of that film reflected in so many other followers.
Stranger still: the big-studio Bridesmaids covered this material with more aplomb than its indie counterparts. Hello, I Must Be Going at least portrayed 30-something regression with what felt like real-world veracity; Girl Most Likely does that indie-comedy thing where its broadest moments combine with its most affected quirks to heighten its oddness into total disbelief. Imogene has a sweetly affectionate relationship with her stunted brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), for example, who refuses to travel further afield than the Jersey boardwalk and spends his time constructing a crustacean-style shell fit for humans to retreat into (the movie assumes the mere sight of the shell is funny in and of itself, as evidenced by a pointless DVD extra, “Life in the Shell”, that consists of someone dragging the prop all around New York and placing it in incongruous locations). I think this is supposed to be both hilarious and poignant, instead of stupid and extremely stupid. However, it’s rooted in a callous disregard for whether Ralph is quirky or in need of a professional diagnosis.
This tone-deaf cuteness has become something of a trademark for co-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, who made such a wonderful and offbeat fiction debut with American Splendor ten years ago. Since then, they’ve carved out a niche telling similarly odd stories in and around the New York City area. Their films The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, and now Girl Most Likely all share a feel for the experience of struggling to live in Manhattan and the accompanying class envies that might play out in these situations.
They also share the distinction of not really working as movies despite talented casts, and Girl Most Likely is perhaps their cartooniest and most oversimplified vision yet: Manhattan is full of rich phonies, New Jersey has a realness that Imogene shouldn’t be so eager to escape, and—as with so many movies about stalled-out 30-somethings—professional success is basically just a few solid decisions away, effectively negating any insights Girl Most Likely has about class. I wondered if a longer cut of the movie might have more resonance. The deleted scenes on the DVD, however, are as spare as its other features, they’re more akin to deleted moments.
Wiig, it doesn’t need to be said, can do better; she has a talent for underplaying but still drawing attention to a character’s self-obsession (on the worry over her faked suicide note: “You thought it was that good?”) and based on Bridesmaids, she could probably write a wicked or at least amusing chronicle of the Manhattan/New Jersey divide. Instead she and Bening (hamming up a Joisey accent), among others, are left flailing, and the ennui of Girl Most Likely starts to feel sadly metatextual.