'Imogene' Toronto Review: Darren Criss and Matt Dillon Steal Kristen Wiig's Coming-of-Age Comedy

'Imogene' Toronto Review: Darren Criss and Matt Dillon Steal Kristen Wiig's Coming-of-Age Comedy

Sep 14, 2012

Apparently you can go home again, even if – to get there – you have to fake a suicide, be discovered by your phony Manhattan socialite friend, hospitalized and eventually released into the care of your demented, superficial and out-of-touch mother. 

At least, that’s what happens in Imogene, a black-ish comedy from screenwriter Michelle Morgan (Middle of Nowhere) that’s fashioned to fit Kristen Wiig’s bitingly sarcastic and self-deprecating comedic delivery by codirectors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team behind American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries
Wiig’s Imogene is properly defined as defiant and more-than-a-little delusional in the film’s opening scene, where we see the snarky middle schooler arguing with a befuddled teacher to change the ending of an amateur production of The Wizard of Oz. We quickly head back over the rainbow and land in Imogene’s current, disappointing reality. Once recognized as a playwright on the rise, she believes she’s overqualified for the theater-magazine writing gig she’s barely holding down. The snippy ladies in her Upper East Side social circle could not be confused as friends, and she’s blind to the fact that her boyfriend, Peter (Brian Petsos), checked out of their relationship months ago. 
In the span of a week, Imogene’s existence crumbles. Peter leaves her. She’s fired by her fed-up editor. And in a fit of depression, she fakes her own suicide hoping to guilt her boyfriend back into her life. It backfires -- miserably for her, but hilariously for us. 
Imogene bursts out of the gate riding Wiig’s uncomfortable comic vibe and a strong voice, provided by Morgan’s script. Sharp and often laugh-out-loud funny, it veers into deranged territories as it introduces Imogene and her quirky but pathetic lifestyle. And it shifts into a higher gear once we’ve met Imogene’s mother, Zelda, played with a calculated South Jersey loopiness by the dependable Annette Bening. 
Zelda’s a gambling addict, closer (emotionally speaking) to her Atlantic City casino dealers than she is to her estranged daughter. But she takes Imogene back into her childhood home, which also happens to be occupied by three bizarre men. Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) is Imogene’s gentle and slow kid brother, a grown man more comfortable with the crabs he keeps as pets than he is with other humans. Zelda’s current boyfriend is George Bush (Matt Dillon). OK, that’s not his real name, but his supersecret – and possibly fake – role with the CIA prevents him from revealing much more. And then there’s Lee (Darren Criss of Glee), the impossibly handsome kid renting Imogene’s old room. Anyone predicting a love connection? 
After a surprisingly cynical and flat-out funny start, Imogene eventually settles into the predictable “rebuilding project” of a Jersey castoff currently in over her head. It’s sweet, often strange, and smart enough to know that any montage of Jersey scenery needs to be set to Bon Jovi’s Bad Medicine
Those expecting Bridesmaids-level laughs, though, might be disappointed that Morgan’s screenplay can’t sustain the comedy while simultaneously reaching for sentimental growth. Criss happens to be as charismatic as he is handsome (and yes, Glee fans, he sings Backstreet Boys in a memorable sequence). Dillon also walks away with the production thanks to a handful of fantastically odd one-liners. But after this comedy, born of deep dysfunction, discards the hilarious negativity that pockmarked its opening act, it sheds a bit of its originality in the process. 

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