What is that heavyweight cast — Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Darren Criss from “Glee” — doing in the likable but fatally strained indie comedy-drama “Girl Most Likely”? This, for an actor, is the risk and occasional reward of signing on to a movie: You cross your fingers and hope for the best, and sometimes you end up with “Little Miss Sunshine.” And sometimes you end up with a dinky misfire like this one.
Wiig — who committed to actress-writer Michelle Morgan’s script before “Bridesmaids” and loyally stuck by the project — plays Imogene Duncan, a hapless Manhattanite whose Jersey Shore roots peek constantly, neurotically through. Years ago, she won a playwriting fellowship, failed to write the play, and has been coasting ever since, pretending to be one of the chic power set and never pulling it off.
In the opening scenes of “Girl Most Likely,” Imogene gets dumped by her Eurotrash boyfriend (Brian Petsos), loses her magazine job, is evicted from her apartment, and discovers how disloyal her catty friends really are. After a mock suicide bid lands her in the hospital, she’s remanded to the care of her mother, Zelda (Bening), an Ocean City tootsie with a gambling addiction and a wardrobe a Real Housewife wouldn’t be caught dead in.
Morgan’s script cartoonishly sets up the class rivalry — svelte New Yorkers, bad; salt-of-the-earth Jerseyites, good — then packs the rafters with wacky characters. The most sympathetic of these is Imogene’s brother, Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), a reclusive sweetheart with some kind of movie Asperger’s and an obsession with mollusks. The funniest (by far) is Matt Dillon as Zelda’s boyfriend, a grinning con artist who claims to be a CIA operative code-named George Boosh.
One doesn’t really want to beat up on “Girl Most Likely,” because it means well and everyone in it appears to be having a good time. But so many things are wrong with the film, from a script that’s bright but never sharp to the editing that leaves scenes hanging flaccidly in the breeze. Every movie creates its own world and works to have you buy into it, but little here passes the smell test, including a hard-to-believe romance between Imogene and the young-hunk boarder (Criss) who has taken over her childhood bedroom. He’s a Backstreet Boy tribute singer who went to Yale and at one point stands on a bench to sing the “Whiffenpoof Song” and — arghh, my head is collapsing from the adorable incongruities.
A bigger problem: Imogene’s a hard-to-like pill who brusquely mistreats everyone on her quest to find the father she was told had died. (Why couldn’t she Google him? Oh, right, “Girl Most Likely” takes place in a world where cellphones have been invented but personal computers have not.) Even the redoubtable Bening is betrayed by the script’s cheery aimlessness and by the slack direction of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, a married directing team that hit pay dirt 10 years ago with “American Splendor” and have floundered since (“The Nanny Diaries,” “The Extra Man”).
“Girl Most Likely” bears an odd resemblance to two other movies about women who fall from grace to their families. In Woody Allen’s upcoming “Blue Jasmine,” Cate Blanchett creates a devastating portrait of a Park Avenue queen who has lost her bearings; and in last year’s “Hello, I Must Be Going,” a divorced Melanie Lynskey crawls back home to a suburbia that feels more honestly and touchingly observed than this movie’s two-dimensional Jersey Shore. Either is recommended. “Girl Most Likely” just has its heart in the right place. If only that were enough.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.