Review: Amy Poehler makes a fizzy but uneven directing debut with ‘Wine Country’
“Wine Country” is quaffable enough. If pressed to supply my own tasting notes, I might describe the blend as unwieldy but not unpleasant, sometimes acid to the point of bitterness (the tartest lines go to Amy Poehler, who also directed).
It isn’t good, exactly — as boozy friend-reunion comedies go, it’s no “Girls Trip” or “The World’s End” — but it has its ticklish grace notes, plus some first-rate second and third bananas, despite a script that seems to be working both too hard and not hard enough.
There’s something fitting about that, since one of the movie’s most oft-repeated ideas is that there are basically two kinds of vacationers: the killjoys who insist on doing as much as possible and the underachievers who’d rather sit around and pop a molly or two. Poehler’s character, Abby, is decidedly one of the former. Having recently dumped her husband and lost her job, she’s poured all her free time and energy into planning an elaborate Napa Valley getaway for her five closest friends, mainly to toast Rebecca (Rachel Dratch), who’s about to turn 50.
Joining Abby in the workaholics’ corner is Catherine (Ana Gasteyer), a successful entrepreneur who can’t stay off her phone. But the others have their distractions too, all of them parceled out in the usual one-personality-trait-apiece fashion. Rebecca’s in denial about her lousy marriage. Naomi (Maya Rudolph) is overwhelmed by her kids. Jenny (Emily Spivey) has vague anxiety issues. The most carefree of the bunch is the boisterous Val (Paula Pell), who shows up with a basket of naughty personalized gag gifts and whom I immediately wanted to follow into a better, less crowded movie of her own.
Among other things, that stand-alone outing might provide a happier outcome for Val and Jade (Maya Erskine), a young waitress she falls for during the group’s first night out. Their May-December flirtation is charming enough to make you wonder what exactly motivated the movie’s most strained and mean-spirited scene, which effectively turns Jade into a cheap millennial punching bag for our world-weary Gen-X protagonists.
The anger behind that scene is understandable even if the execution is more than a little misguided. Written by Spivey and Liz Cackowski, “Wine Country” throws a giddy comic spotlight on six women whose demographic is routinely spurned and misunderstood by society at large, to say nothing of the movie industry. It also plainly aspires to be a sharper, more knowing version of a movie we’ve seen many times already, which basically means that it telegraphs its familiar beats in advance, as if self-awareness alone were a comic virtue.
The not-terribly-persuasive premise is that Abby, Rebecca, Catherine, Naomi, Jenny and Val all met years ago while working at a pizza parlor in Chicago. The name of that restaurant is Antonio’s, though for all intents and purposes it might as well be “Saturday Night Live.” That the movie is little more than a pretext for a feature-length “SNL” reunion is, of course, part of the putative fun. Naturally, Tina Fey will turn up as the tough-talking owner of the sprawling Napa Valley house the gang has rented for the weekend, though Cackowski, also a former “SNL” writer, has an even funnier role as a self-serious organic wine expert.
The script’s jabs at viticulture are among its most consistently successful; by the time someone drops the pun “pinot-egregious,” you’re ready for Doris Day to turn up singing “Que Syrah, Syrah.” Poehler, the ringleader in front of and behind the camera, encouraged her cast to improvise, which makes it even odder that even the throwaway lines feel so carefully written. That polish can be pleasing, but it can also be deadening: Spontaneity inevitably gives way to formula as the characters’ old resentments, dark secrets and salutary life lessons come bubbling to the surface.
Which is not to say that “Wine Country” is without its bright spots, beyond the glorious sun-kissed scenery. Gasteyer and Rudolph, whose characters are consistently at odds, bring a lot of emotional conviction to their cookie-cutter frenemy dynamic. Dratch does some expert back-throwing slapstick, and Brené Brown fans are in for a treat. Jason Schwartzman gets to rub a cuttlefish. I’m not entirely sure why, but you’ve seen worse pairings.
Rating: R, for crude sexual content, language and some drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: iPic Westwood, West Los Angeles; streaming on Netflix beginning Friday
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