IMOGENE (Dir. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)

Verdict: 4.5 stars (out of 5)- You haven’t seen it yet? What are you waiting for!

Ever since I saw Kristen Wiig squint an eye and imitate a penis in Bridesmaids, I’ve been waiting for her next major movie role. And her comic genius has arrived at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival in the form of Imogene, a sentimental comedy about a talented playwright (Wiig) who finds herself beset by life’s woes…except that this time there’s no Melissa McCarthy to the rescue, and the result is a staged suicide attempt that gets Imogene placed under the custody of her eccentric mother, Zelda (played impeccably by Annette Bening), which leads to all sorts of laughs, tears and catharses.

One of the primary strengths of Imogene is its diverse cast. The characters are so varied and well-acted that each one seems completely unique and independent, which means that Imogene provides a comic and dramatic depth that makes watching it an intensely enjoyable experience. No character feels unnecessary or bland, and the strongest testament to that is how much the ancillary characters contribute to the movie. Even the librarian, who is in the movie for literally twenty seconds, is memorably hilarious, and Wiig told us in the Q and A session after the screening that the librarian scene was her favorite in the movie. The directors (Berman and Pulcini) also revealed that the librarian scene was almost entirely improvised, which means that Imogene gives us that rare pairing of a genuinely funny script with a genuinely funny cast.

Even Matt Dillon, in his small role as the delusional and paranoid ‘CIA’ agent that shackles up with Zelda, delivers both a completely unique source of humor and empathy – he not only provides his own brand of insanity for us to laugh at, but creates some genuinely poignant moments when he tries to convey to Imogene the love that her mother has for her.

Imogene’s plummet from the 1% bourgeois scum into the 99% Jersey Shore world of her gambling-addicted mother ensures that there’s no shortage of these distinctive characters for us to enjoy. And since Imogene is the character through which we meet these people, we sympathize entirely with her and connect with characters in the same manner that she does – we hate the entitled bitches she hates, share her frustration with her family, and experience the same catharsis as she does when she discovers how much her brother Ralph loves her.

imogene castRalph is also one of the movie’s greatest accomplishments: Kristen Wiig’s offhand comic personality is balanced perfectly by Christopher Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Ralph, whose social ineptness and agoraphobic obsession with hermit crabs provides us with plenty of loveable weirdness. Fitzgerald is able to simultaneously provide the movie’s funniest and most poignant moments, and it is largely due to this performance that the movie maintains a (mostly) consistent comedic tone. Whether it’s screaming “fuck your mother” in Korean or asking totally irrelevant questions in the midst of dramatic conflict, Ralph’s interruptions almost always prevent the movie from becoming too melodramatic.

Glee’s Darren Criss, who plays Imogene’s scandalously young love interest, also offsets Imogene’s judgmental cynicism with genuine honesty. Criss fits perfectly into Imogene’s family dynamic, and it’s a pleasure to see him take his character from being a horny freshman-type to a mature young adult who can please an older woman…tell your moms, Glee fans! It’s also impressive that Criss is able to provide one of the film’s few sources of optimism without being annoying, and he does this by being genuinely funny. Who can hate a positive man who can crack a good joke?

However, the remarkable balancing that Imogene achieves with its characters isn’t always carried over into the plot. The movie’s sentimentality works wonderfully in that it grounds the ridiculous antics of the characters – for instance, it makes a man running around New York with a human-sized, bullet-proof crab shell seem endearingly odd instead of dangerously insane. Yet Ralph isn’t always there to rescue the comedy with Korean swear words, and Imogene sometimes becomes unnecessarily dramatic. Remember Funny People, where there are literally two movies on screen – a comedy about an upcoming comic and a drama about a morose and successful one? Imogene has a smaller version of this problem, where an inconsistent tone makes the movie seem that it’s unsure of (or forgets) what experience it wants to provide.

But this is really a very minor problem in a great movie that touches us in enough places that we both laugh…and cry…

More seriously, Imogene is a movie whose quality is apparent in every facet – it’s clear that everyone who worked on it, from the writer to the actress who played the librarian, is incredibly talented at what they do. So go see Imogene and let your hearts grow with your smiles!

Movies that do it better: Imogene is a first-rate indie comedy, butBridesmaids is more outright in its humor while still providing some poignant character development, Little Miss Sunshine is a very similar indie-comedy, and it’s comparable to Dan in Real Life (but better); a lot of Judd Apatow’s movies also provide the laughs and the tears.