News Column

'Girl Most Likely' review: disappointment

July 19, 2013

YellowBrix

July 19--Comedy-drama. Starring Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening and Darren Criss. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. (PG-13. 103 minutes.)

Kristen Wiig as a woman lost and embarrassed after a breakup. ... As a woman of talent, who can't practice her craft. ... As a middle-class woman adrift at formal affairs and humiliated by snobs. ... As a woman who finds an unlikely romance. ... These are all plot motifs from "Bridesmaids" that are repeated in Wiig's latest, "Girl Most Likely," but to much different effect.

"Girl Most Likely" is a strange movie, in that it has the atmosphere of a comedy and some extreme characters set up to be comical, but there are really no funny scenes.

It's as if we're watching a satire of something, without knowing the original circumstances or the people being satirized.

Even scenes with a built-in comic spring never get sprung: Scenes involving the heroine's eccentric family, for example, land in an odd zone between excessive mockery and too much affection.

There are comedy-dramas that blend the best of both genres -- like "Waitress," by the late Adrienne Shelly, or for that matter, "Bridesmaids," which somehow kept the heartfelt scenes in perfect balance with Wiig's airplane freak-out and with the food-poisoning scene, in which a bridal party soils a half-dozen designer dresses.

Such tonal balance is practically magical, which is why the very worst and very best films are often comedy-dramas.

The balance is off in "Girl Most Likely," with the drama smothering the comedy, and with the light atmosphere undercutting every moment of seriousness. It's an awkward concoction, and yet not exactly unpalatable, because of Wiig. She is easy to be around, and, every so often, she can wring a mild laugh from just a look or a muttered word.

Fired from her job and reeling from a breakup, Imogene (Wiig) fakes a suicide attempt, hoping to be rescued by her ex-boyfriend, but instead ends up in the custody of her mother (Annette Bening), with whom she has been estranged for years. Mom is a free spirit, with a gambling problem and a weird younger boyfriend (Matt Dillon) who claims to be a CIA agent.

There, in the old family homestead in New Jersey, Imogene is miserable, but really miserable, not funny miserable, and her problems are desperate: She is in her mid-30s, has no career, no romantic prospects, no hope, and not even any friends.

Her family is no comfort, and the one person she loved -- her father -- apparently died when she was only 9 years old, "during a routine colonoscopy." That's probably the funniest line in the entire movie.

As the mother's young boarder, Darren Criss is an affable presence, whose ability to roll with changing circumstances is a nice match for Wiig, whose comic wiring makes her attuned to every source of potential horror. They're good together.

Bob Balaban has a strong feature role as a total creep, and his one scene represents the movie's best meld of comedy and drama. Balaban plays the scene straight, for drama, but tweaks it in terms of character, so we're seeing a serious moment in the life of someone skewed.

But it's in the movie's use of Annette Bening that it really fails. Here's an actress capable of the heights of both comedy and drama, but she plays a character neither funny nor dramatic, just someone ridiculous that we're expected to care about. Bening does her best with what's there, but it's not much.

Even the gas pumping scene is off. The movie takes place in New Jersey, and yet a customer is shown pumping gas at a gas station. No, never happen: New Jersey and Oregon are the only two states in which customers are not allowed to pump gas. That task is left strictly to professionals.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com

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(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle

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