'Wine Country': Film Review

Not long on the palate, but a generous pour.

In a comedy that marks Amy Poehler's feature directing debut, six longtime friends — played by six longtime friends who are 'Saturday Night Live' alumnae — meet in Napa for a celebratory weekend.

Having produced such exuberantly subversive femme-centric TV series as Parks and RecreationBroad City and Russian Doll, Amy Poehler takes the helm of Wine Country, a comic valentine to female friendship and middle age that veers between the wild and the predictable. There are hints of a complex varietal in the Napa-set lark, but mainly it's a fizzy blend of dependable ingredients: seasoned comedy talents and an episodic story that, despite glimmers of anarchy, sticks to a reassuring comfort zone. 

The feature was inspired by a 2016 trip and reunites most of its participants, who include the director, central cast and screenwriters Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski. The group's offscreen chemistry and considerable performance chops, and the spirited affection for her characters that animates Poehler's direction, lend nuance to what's essentially a collection of one-note types.

In Poehler's case, that note recalls the dogged ultra-efficiency of Leslie Knope, but without the Parks and Rec go-getter's unextinguishable positivity. Here Poehler is itinerary-dispensing Abby, organizer of a girls' trip to celebrate the 50th birthday of Rebecca (Rachel Dratch). Abby's keeping a secret from her friends, as is Naomi, a stressed-out mother of four played by Maya Rudolph, who dependably delivers the jolts of wry deliriousness that we've come to expect from her. 

As intended narrative hooks, their secrets never pierce the surface. The only storyline that generates any emotional suspense — and a gut-punch resolution — is that of bawdy Val (Paula Pell), whose good cheer barely masks the butterflies she's feeling over her attraction to a much younger waitress/artist (PEN15's Maya Erskine).

As for the birthday girl, played with wonderfully self-effacing naturalness by Dratch, Rebecca is a therapist with a blind spot when it comes to her own marriage. Rounding out the group are the smartphone-tethered Catherine (Ana Gasteyer), a driven entrepreneur who's on the verge of a big deal, and co-writer Spivey's Jenny, who overcomes a reluctance to travel so that she can join her pals but otherwise has no burning problem to be solved.

And, yes, you can categorize many of the clique's woes as first-world problems, something the screenplay acknowledges without putting too fine a point on it. There's the noise problem, for example, when their spacious rental house's wind chimes get stuck in the dreamcatcher. Shtick and bits propel the story, but it's the offhand lines and behavioral details (note the well-practiced selfie tricks of the middle-aged woman) that provide the laugh-out-loud moments.

The lush Napa Valley setting, with its storybook green hills and vineyards, becomes a surreal backdrop to all the nonsense and angst. As to the local viniculture, the characters, and the film itself, are not especially interested, except for the liberating/medicating effects of wine. Sommeliers and their oenophile spiels make for a couple of well-played scenes but are all-too-easy targets. 

A trio of supporting characters up the absurdity quotient, some more subtly than others. As the owner of the luxurious rental property, Tina Fey is a mix of California weird and independent-woman bravado. Jason Schwartzman brings an effortless ditziness to the role of Devon, the sensualist chef and tour guide who's part of the weekend rental package. And Cherry Jones stops by as a tarot reader who relishes finding the direst messages in the cards. How she makes a living at it is the movie's biggest mystery. With her warning to "get over your shit, because it is later than you think," she enunciates an idea that's meant to drive the comedy but never achieves much of a pulse — though it resonates a bit more, and more poetically, when Devon's never-ending culinary project prompts the conclusion that "life is too short to wait for the paella."

If the truth-telling that unfolds falls too neatly within the lines, Poehler has a knack for capturing what's squirmy and convoluted about the path to the supposed big moments: the way, for example, the women pair off to kvetch ("Can I just say something?"). There's the perfect lingering close-up of Poehler's Abby as she considers an unexpected proposition. And there's the increasingly trippy sequence that follows the group on a long night of drinking. Beginning with fine dining and ending with a fast-food run, it meanders with an in-the-moment unpredictability, shifting from silly to serious and back again. Not everything in the section works; an encounter with pop psychologist Brené Brown feels like fawning product placement. Some of it, notably the crazed sense of mission with which Spivey's and Poehler's characters play DJ, is sublime.

Poehler's adept at showcasing not just the comic gifts of her cast, whose decades-long friendships began in improv theaters and at Saturday Night Live, but also the joyful vamping that connects their characters — who first bonded in another form of group performance, as waitresses in a Chicago pizza parlor. 

The lukewarm lessons that Wine Country serves up are its least convincing aspect. At its unhinged best, it takes detours rather than snapping back into sitcom beats. Bouncing around on a picturesque road somewhere between pop psychology and the tarot, the characters are most alive when they wriggle out of their clearly defined trajectories, unapologetic works in progress.

Production company: Paper Kite Productions
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Paula Pell, Emily Spivey, Cherry Jones, Maya Erskine, Jason Schwartzman, Tina Fey
Director: Amy Poehler
Screenwriters: Emily Spivey, Liz Cackowski
Story by: Amy Poehler, Emily Spivey, Liz Cackowski
Executive producer: Andrea Meditch
Producers: Morgan Sackett, Amy Poehler 
Director of photography: Tom Magill
Production designer: Keith Cunningham
Costume designer: Kirston Leigh Mann
Editor: Julie Monroe
Music: Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman
Casting directors: Allison Jones, Ben Harris

103 minutes