By Betsy Sherman
We’re desperate for some frothy good spirits, so welcome Barb & Star’s turquoise ‘n’ hot pink assault, forgive it for being mildly funny more often than wildly funny, and enjoy its modest pleasures.
Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, directed by Josh Greenbaum. On VoD
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo give thumbs up to the life-enhancing properties of culottes, seashell trinkets, gals named Trish, finding your inner phoenix, and friendship in Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar. The comedy written by and starring the duo (who wrote the brilliant Bridesmaids), and directed by Josh Greenbaum, was supposed to be released during what was envisioned as a normal summer of 2020. Now, as a 2021 Valentine’s Day week release, it comes when we’re even more desperate for some frothy good spirits. So welcome Barb & Star’s turquoise ‘n’ hot pink assault, forgive it for being mildly funny more often than wildly funny, and enjoy its modest pleasures.
Wiig, by design or not, created a rich range of female characters during her run on Saturday Night Live, spanning ages from child to senior, circumstances from rich to working class, and personas from cool to painfully uncool. In the new feature, she and Mumolo create and embody two middle-aged, middle-of-the-road chatterboxes sorely in need of the adventure they’ll have in the eponymous getaway on Florida’s Gulf coast.
Homebodies in comfy Soft Rock, Nebraska, Barb (Mumolo) a widow, and Star (Wiig), a divorcée, engage in lively conversations that are always mutually supportive, never competitive (even when discussing respective sexual fantasy faves, the man on the Pringles can vs. Mr. Peanut). “I’ll never lie to you,” they vow. It’s revealed that the sofa they’re chatting on isn’t in the home they share, it’s in the furniture store where they work. Abruptly, they find out the store’s going out of business, upending their safe routine. Star suggests they take the advice of a friend and vacation in Vista Del Mar. Barb imagines everything that could go wrong, but finally agrees to chance it. Stepping outside the airport, they’re reassured when the Florida coast “smells like Red Lobster!”
In addition to following Barb and Star, the movie has descended into the lair of a sleek, white-gowned villainess with ultra-pale skin and a black pageboy hairdo (Wiig plays this role too, exuding an aura that can be called Tilda Blanchett). She’s plotting revenge on the town where she had been bullied as a child: Vista Del Mar. The plan to wreak havoc during the crowning of the Shrimp Queen will be launched by her operative Edgar (Jamie Dornan). The smitten Edgar gets her to agree that once the mission is accomplished, they can become “an official couple,” though by her body language we can tell that’s not in the cards (the baddie isn’t given a name in the film, but in the credits she’s called Sharon Gordon Fisherman).
Barb and Star soak up the marvels of the resort town, which include a big musical number check-in at the Palm Vista Hotel. They meet Edgar, a fellow guest, at the hotel bar. He turns out to be a singularly guileless no-good (even his use of a flip phone is endearing). The three are given party drugs, and their frenzy on the dance floor leads to off-screen sexual gymnastics (the ladies are Midwestern Nice, but not prudes).
Desire for Edgar’s attention comes between the friends, leading to deviousness and, uh-oh, big fat lies (which somehow involve turtles). But sinister Sharon’s arrival impels them to mend the friendship, foil the plot, put Edgar on the path to redemption and leave Vista Del Mar an even better place than they found it.
Barb & Star is more cartoonish and less ambitious than Bridesmaids, which took an in-depth look at friendship, amidst the gross-out laughs. On those terms, director Greenbaum gets good mileage out of the cheery color palette and lovingly tacky production design that extends to Barb and Star’s home décor and their wardrobe full of those sort-of-pants/sort-of-a-skirt culottes. Some comic premises are stretched thin, the worst being an auxiliary baddie played by Damon Wayans Jr. (not his fault — the character of a spy who can’t help but constantly spill the beans was a dud in conception).
Not surprisingly, most of the supporting roles go to familiar faces from improv comedy. A highlight is Barb and Star’s hometown social outlet, the “talking club” attended by Fortune Feimster, Phyllis Smith and Rose Abdoo, lorded over by Vanessa Bayer with an aggressively serene smile. Then out of nowhere there’s Jamie Dornan, bless him, as Edgar. Who knew the Fifty Shades of Grey guy could pull off an angsty rock ballad about wanting to be in an “official couple,” dancing on the beach and singing to seagulls?
Wiig and Mumolo, who met as members of The Groundlings, have perfected their comic rhythm. They bask in each other’s company as their characters face their 40s and beyond with a regained “shimmer.” Wiig is dependably fun in her dual roles. The revelation is Mumolo, who has popped up in movies and on TV but never in such a prominent role. Arguably, the heart of the movie is a montage where Barb flings herself into risk. She snorkels, goes parasailing, rides a motorcycle, and prances barefoot across hot coals. Barb’s emergence as a “phoenix” is Mumolo’s into a deserved spotlight.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.