Amid the reverberating thunder of the seasonal spectaculars, a movie without any special effects should reassure audiences that Hollywood has not yet destroyed the world with planetary collision, climate catastrophe, thermonuclear war, or all those tiresome zombies. A modest little romantic comedy and a quintessential chick flick, "Girl Most Likely," provides a modicum of relief from the coming apocalypse.
The movie proceeds in a most predictable manner, following a familiar trajectory of loss, suffering, learning, and resolution. Kristen Wiig plays Imogene, a once promising young playwright now reduced to working at a New York magazine, writing capsule reviews of Broadway plays, hanging around with some phony, artsy society types, and living in a posh apartment with her wealthy boyfriend Peter (Brian Petsos). Her whole world collapses when Peter dumps her and she loses her job, which leads to a half-hearted suicide attempt, the gesture that in effect reopens her life.
Against her wishes, she must return to her home in Ocean City, New Jersey to stay with her mother Zelda (Annette Benning) in a most dysfunctional household, the sort of domicile full of eccentrics that appears in some 1940s comedies. Zelda, a compulsive gambler, now has a live-in boyfriend, George Boosh (Matt Dillon), who consumes only turkey sandwiches, claims to be a CIA agent, and spins fantastic tales of his incredible experiences. She has also rented Imogene's bedroom to Lee (Darren Criss) a young singer in a casino band that impersonates the Backstreet Boys (really). Imogene's younger brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), pudgy and dim, collects mollusks and runs a kiosk called Crabville on the boardwalk.
Disheartened by the company she must keep, fully aware of her failure as a writer, broke and alone, Imogene pines for her old life in New York, but when Lee drives her back to her apartment, she discovers that on top of everything else, she's been evicted, her supposed friends won't help her, and actually don't even like her. Another force propels her, the discovery that the father she had believed died when she was a child — Zelda's invention — is alive and well, a scholar who lives in a palatial home in Manhattan.
The script includes a number of familiar comic gimmicks and touches, the usual gags and some physical bits mixed in with the obvious patterns demanded of its form; it also provides some funny surprises. Ralph, whose obsession with mollusks inspires him to create a hermit crab shell for humans, turns out to be smarter and more resourceful than anyone would expect. And a potentially violent climactic moment reveals the real truth about George, the fantasizing secret operative.
In addition to the reasonably pleasant, reasonably successful comic plot, "Girl Most Likely" employs a number of repeated shots that in effect visually summarize the major conflict of the movie. The directors juxtapose some nighttime panoramas of Ocean City with New York City, with Manhattan's glittering necklace of bridges beautifully contrasting with the lighted amusement park along the boardwalk, especially the Ferris wheel turning in its brilliant circles against the dark background of the sea. The contrast also illuminates Imogene's own internal conflict, stuck in Ginsberg's nowhere Zen New Jersey and longing for the glamour of New York.
Everybody in the cast performs well, so well in fact that the supporting players actually prove more interesting than Kristen Wiig, who mostly seems bland and passive. Matt Dillon plays the secret agent with absolute seriousness, never even hinting at the absurdity of his character and his ridiculous utterances; his consistent deadpan and absolute belief in himself make him perhaps the funniest person in the whole messy group. As usual, Annette Benning demonstrates that she can play comedy as well as anything else, imbuing the ostensibly nutty and self-centered Zelda with a touching and sincere element of pathos.
Like "Sex and the City," the picture shows a cinema version of Manhattan, with a certain stratum of the city populated by affluent, sophisticated, well dressed people, most of them attractive women who attend art shows, book launches, and glossy parties. Most impressive and least believable, it also shows that Lee, who drives Imogene into the city on a couple of occasions, always finds a parking space.