Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar (2021)
Written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo
Directed by Josh Greenbaum
From the first scene of Barb and Star, you can tell this isn’t going to be a gross-out comedy. Instead, it hints at the best sort of absurd comedies like The Jerk or Wayne’s World. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it doesn’t have to be, it made me laugh, and that’s what I wanted. Not every joke hits the same, but the ones that work are hilarious. It had been a long while since I’d watched a mainstream comedy that I actually found funny. I was right that the team behind Bridesmaids would deliver.
Barb and Star (Mumolo & Wiig) are employees at Jennifer Convertibles in the Midwest. They find out they’ve lost their jobs as the store is closing but do get a severance package. A chance encounter with a friend plants the idea of taking a vacation to Vista del Mar, Florida. Barb’s husband died years earlier, and Star’s left her for another woman around the same time. They decide to step out of their comfort zone and the trip. But it’s not going to happen without complication as Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also Wiig), a Bond-like albino villain, has plotted revenge against the citizens of Vista del Mar for a past slight. She dispatches her henchman/wannabe lover Edgar (Jamie Dornan) to make sure the plan goes off without a hitch. But he crosses paths with Barb & Star, getting embroiled in a love triangle.
There’s something very old-fashioned about this film, hearkening back to the movies mentioned above. It feels like Mumolo & Wiig wanted to make something in the spirit of films they grew up geeking over. Not once does the picture takes itself seriously or trying to deliver a heartfelt message. That said, it’s not mean-spirited in the slightest and laughs with its characters, never at them. The picture celebrates eccentricity, and the bad guys are people who lack empathy. There are even quite a few musical numbers, enough that the movie falls into that category, in my opinion.
This is an instance where the performers having a long history together doing comedy and writing together pays off on the screen. Mumolo appeared in Bridesmaids as the airsick woman, and her chemistry with Wiig was readily apparent there. A decade later, and they still have it, this time Mumolo gets a lot more screentime and a chance to show off her acting chops. From the trailers, I was worried that Barb & Star would be way too broad, but thankfully these actors love these characters too much to allow them to exist without depth. I got the hint that Barb & Star might have been personas the two women played and bantered as for fun for years. It reminded me of bits I would do with siblings or my wife, creating these elaborate characters while being silly.
It’s hard to pull off a character-centered comedy these days. Usually, we get movies focused on an actor who is merely playing a version of themselves. Think about Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell’s movies. Mumolo and Wiig populate their world with so many odd people and present a ridiculous premise from the first moment. You’ll know if you’re going to love or hate this movie ten minutes in. It starts with an Asian-American paperboy named Yo-Yo lip-syncing to Barbara Streisand before riding his bike to the country. Once there, he finds a tree with a keypad on it, types in the code, and descends into the lair of Sharon Gordon Fisherman, where her evil plot involving weaponized mosquitos is laid out. If reading that, you are turned off, then skip the movie. If, however, that sounds wonderful, then this picture is going to be a treat for you.
I kept thinking as I watched Barb and Star how good Wiig was in this compared to Wonder Woman 1984. In both films, she plays a villain but oh, what a difference a script makes. WW 84 did not play to Wiig’s strength and sidelines her character at one point because it doesn’t know what to do with her. Wiig as the villain here is so much better, and I actually understand her motivations, as silly as they might be, more clearly than I ever did The Cheetah’s. I think Wiig could do great work outside of straightforward comedies, but the work offered to her that realizes that potential has been few and far between.