“Imogene” finds Kristen Wiig in victory lap mode, and that suits her just fine. Perhaps the most likable comedic actress to come down the pike since Diane Keaton threw on a Civil War-era vest and floppy hat, Wiig finds herself, post-“Bridesmaids,” in rarified company. She is a beloved, in-demand actress and comedienne, and a star who has something Kristen Stewart and Angelina Jolie would maim for: likability.
That likability oozes from every scene in “Imogene,” Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini‘s occasionally winning, a touch too sitcom-y, but often very funny look at one woman’s offbeat family and her attempts at discovering just what went wrong on the road to success.
It is not, to be sure, “Bridesmaids”-style humor, and never reaches that blockbuster’s belly laugh count. But the film, which premiered on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, doesn’t lack for moments of inspired comedy, and I expect it to find an audience.
Like the wounded souls of Wes Anderson’s “Royal Tenenbaums,” Wiig’s Imogene is a once-promising talent who has hit her personal bottom. The younger Imogene was a playwright-to-be and recipient of a grant which, sadly, led to nothing. As the film opens, she is in a relationship with a suit who clearly doesn’t love her, a job she’s too honest for, and saddled with wealthy friends who look at her as a poor relation.
When her boyfriend breaks up with her, Imogene responds with a fake suicide attempt in a wildly wry sequence. (She shaves her legs, composes a note, and pops one pill, for appearances.) But this attempt at winning back her beau instead brings Imogene face to face with the woman she has stayed away from for years: her brassy, gambling addicted, white-trash mother, played by a simply brilliant Annette Bening.
She’s also forced to head back to Ocean City, New Jersey, and everything that entails. Back home is Imogene’s sweet but simple brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald, stuck with an “offbeat” role, but doing what he can with it), her mother’s new boyfriend (a note-perfect Matt Dillon who regales Ralph with tales of his “CIA” past), and much-too-normal boarder staying in her old room (“Glee” star Darren Criss who gives an infinitely likable performance as Lee).
Secrets about the family’s past come to light, Imogene and Lee develop a bond, and she starts to rethink her life and thwarted career. If it all sounds like, well, a sitcom, or a Lifetime series, it sort of is. You’ve hit on the film’s chief issue: a script saddled with wayyy too much wacky, and never enough nuance.
But there is Kristen Wiig, and she once again proves her value. Whether smuggling a library book under her old phys ed shirt or weeping in the rain on a broken chair, she is adorable, heartfelt and smart. Bening is typically wonderful, of course. She’s been on a heckuva run during the past few years, and her role in “Imogene” plays to her acerbic strengths. Quite simply, the pair, and their co-stars, elevate the material.
But the real surprise is Darren Criss. For audience members who have never turned the channel to “Glee” (guilty), his name stands for little. Yet in “Imogene” he is likable, funny and poised, and plays remarkably well opposite Wiig. This could be a breakout role for the actor, whose character, the singer in a Backstreet Boys tribute band, is one of the film’s highlights.
For directors Springer Berman and Pulcini, meanwhile, “Imogene” represents a pleasant return to big-screen solidity. While this film never achieves anything resembling the greatness of the duo’s stunning “American Splendor,” the Harvey Pekar story whose mix of pathos, comedy and unease seems more acute with each passing year, “Imogene” is their next best big-screen effort by a mile. Last year’s HBO film “Cinema Verite” was a modest and enjoyable small-screen effort, and a far more satisfying experience than their stunningly limp ‘Splendor’ follow-ups “The Nanny Diaries” and the blink-and-it’s-gone Kevin Kline vehicle “The Extra Man.” “Imogene” doesn’t quite match their breakout, but for the most part, it works.
Springer Berman and Pulcini could not have collaborated with Wiig at a better time. And for the actress, it’s another sign that she refuses to play it safe. Okay, so she didn’t pull a “Monster” or “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but why should she? Wiig is a comic powerhouse on screens small and (now) large, and while seeing her in a real drama would be intriguing, I like seeing her do what she does well, as she does here. She could have been cast in Garry Marshall‘s “St. Patrick’s Day.” instead, she tackles the meaty lead in a comedy that doesn’t linger in the memory but succeeds in entertaining for a couple hours. Her “Bridesmaids” fans will be more than satisfied, so good for her – and good for us, too. [B-]