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After setting a new gold standard for the female buddy comedy with the 2011 smash Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo reunite on both sides of the camera to riff on a model popularized in the 1980s and ’90s. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar is so indebted to fluffy pleasures like Outrageous Fortune and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion that you almost expect a Touchstone Pictures logo to pop up. An unapologetically delirious frolic in which lifelong friendship is tested by romance, adventure and the mass-extermination plan of an archvillain, this disarming escape to turquoise waters and a seafood buffet will be just what many folks need right now.
No one is going to mistake the Lionsgate release for sophisticated comedy, and direct comparison to Bridesmaids will find it lacking in characters that go beyond sketch material. But there’s plenty of heart and infectious spirit, thanks largely to the daffy chemistry of Wiig and Mumolo, exercising well-honed improv skills that date back to their Groundlings days, when the earliest incarnations of the title characters were hatched.
RELEASE DATE Feb 12, 2021
It’s also fun to see a gender flip of the traditional formula, placing two unworldly women in their 40s at the center of an action-adventure comedy in which the object of lust is a tasty, not terribly bright younger man.
Directed by TV and documentary vet Josh Greenbaum like he’s at the wheel of an out-of-control bumper car, and designed by a team that never met a loud candy color they didn’t love, the film has a decidedly retro vibe even if its timeframe is unspecified. That starts with Yoyo (Reyn Doi) on his newspaper delivery route lip-syncing to Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty,” continues with a splashy musical number with echoes of Beauty and the Beast‘s “Be Our Guest,” welcoming Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) to the Florida seaside resort of the title, and wraps up with a classic Harry Belafonte tune forever associated with Beetlejuice. The quick Fatal Attraction sight gag is priceless.
Aside from their flat Midwestern accents, Barb and Star could easily be Romy and Michele 20 years down the track, with their nonstop nattering and excited exclamations over the most banal affinities. They live in the fictional town of Soft Rock, Nebraska, sport the same poufy meringue hairdos and work in the mall at the same home furnishing store, so addicted to each other’s company they come in regardless of whose shift it is that day.
Barb is widowed and Star divorced, so their social week revolves around the ladies-only “Talking Club,” a chat session presided over with unyielding authority by Debbie (Vanessa Bayer, perfection as always) that’s basically an excuse to gather a bunch of funnywomen (Fortune Feimster, Phyllis Smith, Rose Abdoo) in the same room. When Barb and Star suddenly lose their dream jobs, they follow the suggestion of their sassy friend Mickey (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and book a vacation at Vista Del Mar.
Meanwhile, removing the story entirely from reality, a subplot unfolds in an underground lair and secret laboratory just outside Soft Rock, where Yoyo serves as trusted henchman to a master criminal identified in the credits as Sharon Gordon Fisherman. This gives Wiig a juicy secondary role, which is a better fit than her disappointing Cheetah in Wonder Woman 1984 and closer to her deliciously campy Alexanya Atoz in the otherwise disposable Zoolander 2.
Dressed in severe white robes with a razor-cut bob and skin whiter than milk, Sharon is forced to avoid the sun since a childhood illness left her with a rare condition called Pigmentatia degenera hysterica white skinica. She toys with the affections of her besotted underling Edgar (Jamie Dornan) and keeps bumbling superspy Darlie Bunkle (Damon Wayans Jr.) on speed dial for emergencies. Having overseen the development of genetically modified killer mosquitoes, Sharon sends Edgar to Vista Del Mar to lay the groundwork for her elaborate revenge scheme as payback for the bullying and mockery of her youth.
This is all strictly Saturday morning cartoon-type plotting, but Wiig pulls it off with devilish glee. What’s more surprising is that Dornan does too, proving to be a great sport in a himbo performance that’s equal parts amusing and endearing. Sappy Edgar is convinced that success in this mission will make him and Sharon an “official couple.” But her chilly evasiveness sends mixed messages, and a kickass cocktail at the hotel bar gets him entangled with Barb and Star, confusing him even further. This is expressed most memorably in a cheesy music-video interlude called “Edgar’s Prayer,” with hilariously bad lyrics courtesy of Wiig and Mumolo.
As a clandestine romance develops, Barb and Star begin lying to one another for the first time in their friendship, causing a rift just as their lives, and those of everyone else at the resort, are in danger. But wild tourism adventure experiences, not to mention strange encounters with a talking crab, a Tommy Bahama mystery man and the jaws of hungry alligators, help both women to find their elusive “shimmer.” (Kind of like Stella getting her groove back.)
Stir in some cute star cameos and you’ll either find all this giddy fun or silly in the extreme or both, depending on your appetite for plotting so outlandish it hinges at one point on the life-saving properties of culottes. I tend to be allergic to “zany,” but even the dumbest gags here are delivered with a conviction that hits the spot after almost a year in lockdown. And Wiig and Mumolo bounce off one another with such contagious delight that even when they’re channeling the most annoying passengers you ever got stuck with on a flight, they’re irresistible.
Production companies: Lionsgate, Gloria Sanchez Productions, Stellie
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Jamie Dornan, Damon Wayans Jr., Vanessa Bayer, Fortune Feimster, Phyllis Smith, Ian Gomez, Michael Hitchcock, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kwame Patterson, Reyn Doi, Rose Abdoo, Mark Jonathan Davis
Director: Josh Greenbaum
Screenwriters: Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig
Producers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Jessica Elbaum, Margot Hand
Executive producer: Jonathan McCoy
Director of photography: Toby Oliver
Production designer: Steve Saklad
Costume designer: Trayce Gigi Field
Music: Christopher Lennertz, Dara Taylor
Editor: Steve Welch
Casting: Allison Jones, Ben Harris
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes
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