Looking past the improvised obscenities, explosive diarrhea, and every insane bon mot that came spilling out of Melissa McCarthy’s mouth, at its core, Bridesmaids was a simple story of the crushing insecurity of a woman whose economic woes alienated her from her upwardly mobile best friend. That such a relatable human dilemma could exist within such an outrageous tempest of a comedy is a testament to the actress playing anchor. In 2011, was there anything as achingly amusing as watching Kristen Wiig, in a star-making performance, weather an onslaught of humiliations? She made failure funny—not just in a ha-ha kind of way, but also in a manner painfully familiar to anyone who’s ever had a total life meltdown, whether behind closed doors or in mixed company.
Slights to dignity are a source of humor again in Girl Most Likely, Wiig’s second starring vehicle, which was called simply Imogene when it premièred at Toronto last fall. As in Bridesmaids, the SNL alum plays a woman teetering on the edge: Having squandered a fellowship opportunity years earlier, her failed playwright hits rock bottom, losing both her entry-level magazine job and her plainly over-it boyfriend. That’s a fine setup for a comedy of misfortune, and an early scene of Wiig faking a suicide attempt seems to hint at a darker direction. (“You really think it was good?” she gushes when the doctor calls her farewell letter “convincing.”) Alas, it’s an empty promise: Lacking both the broad belly laughs and the sly emotional undercurrents of Bridesmaids, this formulaic indie sitcom from Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini—who made American Splendor in 2003 and nothing of merit since—suppresses its star’s gift for screwball agony. Improbably, lamentably, Wiig never gets to wig out; not even a fledgling night of drunken abandon brings out the real wild woman in her.
The blame belongs most plainly with Michelle Morgan’s script, which requires this gifted comedian to play straight woman to a supporting carnival of Indiewood types. Remanded to the custody of her gambling-addict mother (Annette Bening, who at least looks like she could be related), Wiig is dragged, kicking and screaming, back to her childhood home in New Jersey. Here, the cuddly oddballs crawl out of the woodwork. There’s her crab-obsessed brother (Christopher Fitzgerald), a gentle soul with an unidentified mental condition (call it Sundance Syndrome) and a mechanical, metaphoric “human shell” he’s built to protect himself from the world. Also hanging around the house is Bening’s boyfriend (Matt Dillon), a self-proclaimed CIA samurai who crawls into a giant rubber suit any time there’s thunder. (Is a theme emerging here?) Surrounded by these colorful creatures of quirk, Wiig naturally gravitates to the handsome, relatively normal twentysomething (Glee’s Darren Criss) renting her old room. It’s easy to see why she would be drawn to this kindhearted stud, who offers her free rides to the city and unsolicited moral support. But what’s he getting out of the deal? Wiig’s heroine is a humorless wet blanket, not so down on her luck that she can’t fling disdain at anyone living outside of the 212 area code.
Rocked by a family secret, and determined to reunite with a face from her past, Wiig hurdles toward some obvious lesson about home being where the heart is. That Bening maybe wasn’t the best parent, what with the epic lies and the chronic gambling, doesn’t factor into the movie’s emotional logic. Berman and Pulcini stack the deck in the family’s favor by painting everyone in Wiig’s circle of Manhattan friends (including the usually hilarious June Diane Raphael, here acting through an upturned nose) as backstabbing snobs. But if Fitzgerald needs to lose his protective shell and see the world beyond the Atlantic City boardwalk, why does Wiig need to retreat to the shelter of her old life? Either way, Girl Most Likely builds to a climax of such monumental stupidity that it destroys whatever slim pretense of realism the film has heretofore established. (There’s also a wordless cameo by a filmmaker whose presence makes about as much sense as Anthony Bourdain appearing in a White Castle commercial.) The movie’s biggest sin, though, is simply wasting Wiig. This is one failure she can’t make funny.