Caren Lissner’s novel “Carrie Pilby” was first published in 2003 by a Harlequin subsidiary cashing in on the “chick lit” craze, then reprinted a few years later as a YA title — which explains its formulaic single-gal-in-the-big-city content, as well as the fact that its 19-year-old heroine’s emotions seem more apt for early adolescence. This film adaptation, a first directorial feature for producer Susan Johnson, somewhat improves on the moderately successful, rather insipid book. Bel Powley, of last year’s Sundance breakout “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” certainly brings improved edginess and comic timing to the titular figure.
Even so, this is awfully soft stuff, its naval-gazing protagonist not nearly as unusual or delightful as we’re meant to think despite the high IQ she can’t stop referencing. Limply cute, with underdeveloped subplots and secondary characters, this sitcomish dramedy shares the source material’s primary fault: For a story about a supposed genius, it’s not all that clever or complicated.
Carrie (Powley) lives alone in Manhattan, without apparent friends or nearby family. Her biggest attachment is a grudgingly semi-professional one to therapist Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane). He’s also an old friend of her father (Gabriel Byrne), whom Carrie views as inattentive even beyond the fact that he inconveniently lives in London, where she was raised until her mother died some years go. Carrie was considered bright enough to skip three grades and start attending Harvard at age 14. But being a “freak” among older students only bolstered her somewhat snarky, misanthropic view. As did, ultimately, a seen-in-flashbacks dalliance with a literature professor (Colin O’Donoghue) who turned out to be even creepier than his seduction of a then-16-year-old would suggest.
So, now Carrie stays home reading most of the time, humbugging the majority of humanity she prefers not to deal with. But a couple factors force her horizons to widen a bit: Dr. Petrov gives her homework in the form of a to-do list that requires some basic social interaction (“Go on a date,” “Make a friend,” etc.); and dad’s connections get her a night-shift job as a proofreader at a legal firm. These tasks introduce her to, respectively, Matt (Jason Ritter), a personal-ad poster she wishes she didn’t like, since he already has a fiancee; and high-contrast co-workers Tara (Vanessa Bayer), a brassy redhead; and Douglas (Desmin Borges), a dweeby oddball. But it’s sheer chance that the apartment next door gains a new roommate in musical prodigy Cy (William Moseley), conveniently providing the slightly goofy (but still model-perfect) Prince Charming that every Quirky Girl really wants for Christmas.
Brisker, more eventful, and with some better dialogue than its source material, “Carrie Pilby” finds Johnson taking the directorial reins with assurance, if not much of the style or personality that this flimsy material could’ve used. It benefits most from Powley, who gets to keep her British accent here and maintains some of the comic prickliness that distinguished her character in “Diary.” But if that figure was an over-precocious adolescent, Carrie is a young woman who too often annoyingly thinks and acts like a bratty teen, complete with an “Ewww” attitude toward all things sexual.
The actress wears cutesy neurosis very well, but her facility for it underlines how close to sitcom terrain this whole concept is. And while she’s capable of suggesting high intelligence as a sort of screwball handicap, the film still echoes the novel’s weakness of having our heroine manifest “being smart” mostly as a matter of Advanced Name Dropping and Miscellaneous Fun Facts. That’s good enough for “Jeopardy!,” but it would have been better to lend Carrie some specific intellectual focus and direction.
Lane, Bayer, Ritter, and Moseley fare best among the supporting players, with the more dramatic turns by Byrne and O’Donoghue suffering from thin character writing. At best an innocuous time filler, “Carrie Pilby” is set over the holidays in Manhattan, yet winter refuses to make an appearance — an apt omission for a movie whose protagonist runs hot and cold in a vehicle that itself is never anything but unchallengingly lukewarm.