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Witty acting and sharp observation of the great New York/New Jersey divide push Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Imogene up several notches from the conventional comedy it keeps aspiring to be. It’s almost as though the bitchy acidity of the opening scenes in Manhattan were too sophisticated for life on the New Jersey shore, and Michelle Morgan’s energetic script pulls back to nice, accordingly. If overall on the disappointing side for fans of the directors of American Splendor and Cinema Verité, the film has a clever mix of movie, TV and stage stars, including Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Kristen Wiig and Darren Criss, who should help broadcast its appeal to diversified audiences.
Straight comedy is pretty far removed from what Springer Berman and Pulcini are usually up to, though one can feel the wry influence of Woody Allen sprinkled like stardust over the characters, notably in the scenes set in uptown Manhattan at its most pretentious. Imogene is superbly introduced as the 10-year-old star of a school production of The Wizard of Oz, who has issues with sending Dorothy back to Kansas. She is next seen all grown up (ironic Saturday Night Live star Wiig) and living in New York, trying to fit in with an insufferable bunch of false friends and a boyfriend who doesn’t like her. Meanwhile, she’s given up her dreams of being a playwright.
This whole first part is smart and brassy, sparkling with Wiig’s inventive self-assertion. When she’s dumped by her slick guy, she stages a fake suicide attempt to attract his sympathy, but it backfires and the hospital turns her over to the custody of her estranged mother, Zelda (Bening). Imogene rants and rails against returning to the homey kitsch of her youth as a doctor gives her a strong sedative, closing the first act.
Annie Spitz’s sets change from chic to tacky as the action shifts to the wood frame house where Imogene grew up. Exuberant, spacy and a compulsive gambler, her mother lives with a strange character called “the Bousche” (a grainy, goofy Dillon), supposedly an undercover C.I.A. agent. Imogene finds her brother Ralph, played with articulate dignity by Broadway actor Christopher Fitzgerald, absorbed in a fantasy world filled with crabs. The little animals have inspired him to design a giant shell for humans to hide in, which will play a major part in upcoming scenes.
Meanwhile, her childhood room has been rented to Lee (the magnetically likeable Criss), a darkly handsome fellow who looks like another loser, but turns out to have many hidden qualities. Though he’s younger than Imogene, the two are clearly meant to get together. Their first date takes place at a fantastically outré show featuring impersonators (including Lee) of disco music stars of the 90’s, but that’s pretty much the highlight of how their relationship is developed.
The film’s great strength is its intuitive casting. The actors interact so well that it’s hard to single out one performance, though it’s perhaps Bening who wins the day for the sexy humanity she gives to the former go-go dancer Zelda.
Morgan’s screenplay is full of intelligent dialogue that got real laughs from the audience on its Toronto bow, and it hits a number of high points before getting bogged down in reconstructing Imogene’s personal Kansas.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 7, 2012.
Production companies: Maven Pictures, Anonymous Content Pictures in association with Ambush Entertainment, 10th Hole Productions, Gambit Films
Cast: Kristin Wiig, Annette Bening, Darren Criss, Matt Dillon, Christopher Fitzgerald, Micky Sumner, June Diane Raphael, Bob Balaban
Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Screenwriter: Michelle Morgan
Producers: Trudie Styler, Celine Rattray, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Mark Amin
Co-producers: Luca Borghese, Hardy Justice
Executive producers: Kristen Wiig, Michelle Morgan, Miranda Bailey, Matt Leutwyler, Steve Golin, Dylan K. Narang,Nadine De Barros, Dan Frishwasser, Marra B. Gad, Anne O’Shea
Director of photography: Steve Yedlin
Production designer: Annie Spitz
Costumes: Tom Broecker
Editor: Robert Pulcini
Music: Rob Simonsen
Sales Agent: Uta
No rating, 103 minutes.
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