Shrewd comic instincts keep a formulaic pity-party largely afloat in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s fourth feature collaboration, “Imogene.” An able cast, led by Kristen Wiig’s prickly lead turn, saves this uneven, excessively quirky but ultimately ingratiating story of a mopey Manhattanite forced to return to her inglorious New Jersey roots for an extended period of self-rediscovery. Offering another sly snapshot of the filmmakers’ native New York, a la “The Nanny Diaries” and “The Extra Man,” this soft-bellied crowdpleaser should post modest numbers in specialty play and DVD/VOD rotation.
In one of those patented bad-luck spells that typically force comedy protagonists to drop everything and go find themselves, Imogene Duncan (Wiig), a once-promising playwright in her mid-30s, loses her Gotham high-society boyfriend (Brian Petsos) and her magazine job in quick succession. Desperate to win back her ex, and perhaps taking a page from her namesake in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” Imogene fakes a suicide attempt that backfires and instead earns the sympathy of her long-estranged mother, Zelda (Annette Bening), who drives her heavily sedated daughter back home to in Ocean City, N.J.
Crude slapstick and sitcom-level formulations make for an off-putting early stretch, as the family homestead turns out to be populated with one zany character after another. Zelda, whom Imogene blames for ruining her life, is a high-functioning gambling addict who likes to get spanked by her apparently CIA-involved boyfriend, known simply as the Bousche (Matt Dillon). Imogene’s brother, Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), is a tubby mollusk enthusiast as shy as the hermit crabs he collects.
Most annoyingly of all, Imogene finds her bedroom now rented out to laid-back Yale grad Lee (Darren Criss), though their tetchy early encounters inevitably give way to friendship and mutual attraction.
An amusing scene at the halfway mark, featuring one of Lee’s nightly performances as a Backstreet Boy lookalike in a hokey ’90s-nostalgia lounge act, marks a turning point for their relationship as well as for the film, as Wiig and Criss begin to generate an appealing older-woman/younger-man chemistry, and Ben-ing and Fitzgerald bring animating subtleties to their broadly eccentric roles.
This is the first bigscreen production directed but not also scripted by Springer Berman and Pulcini, working here from a screenplay by Michelle Morgan (who had a role in their 2011 telepic “Cinema Verite”). As such, the originality and conceptual ingenuity of the filmmakers’ 2003 breakout debut, “American Splendor,” are even less in evidence here than in their prior two pictures, as “Imogene” tells a thoroughly predictable tale of a needy, self-pitying city girl forced to renew bonds with the unsophisticated beach-town folk who really care about her.
The script’s overarching missteps include a too-easy contrast between Manhattan snobbery and Jersey-shore integrity, and a subplot involving long-buried secrets about Imogene and Ralph’s late father is too obviously rigged to conclude the film on a cathartic note. Yet scene by scene, the helmers and actors manage to mine warmth, wit and gentle comic rhythms from Morgan’s dialogue, a process aided considerably by Pulcini’s typically sharp editing.
Though her performance here isn’t as thorny and layered as her turn in “Bridesmaids,” Wiig is again ideally cast as a woman experiencing bitter disappointment in life, and her character’s almost nonstop irritability has an invigorating effect on the rest of the ensemble. The dynamic between protective older sister and awkward younger brother is played with particular delicacy by Wiig and stage thesp Fitzgerald; elsewhere, Bening and Criss bring abundant charm to the table, while Dillon exudes gravel-voiced presence in the one role that doesn’t really pay off.
New Jersey beach locations provide a nicely atmospheric contrast to New York’s bustling streets and swanky parties, and Zelda’s cramped, cozy house merits special mention in Annie Spitz’s spot-on production design. Otherwise, the tech package has a low-budget roughness that suggests an edgier movie than the audience winds up getting.