Mumolo and Wiig's follow-up to 'Bridesmaids' doesn't have the same relatability but delves into female friendships and middle-age second chances with silliness and sentimentality.
- ⭐️ Mumolo and Wiig have such radiant chemistry as co-writers and costars that they can make almost any wild idea they come up with funny.
- ⭐️ Building a comedy around two characters' friendship and goodness pays off in a more rewarding way than if they were competing or fighting with each other.
- ⭐️ Jamie Dornan is outpaced by his female costars as he struggles to balance his character's lovelorn disposition.
- ⭐️ Director Josh Greenbaum doesn't quite hold together the script's unwieldy combination of sweet character-driven humor and a larger-than-life, Austin Powers-style narrative.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar gives Kristen Wiig her own Austin Powers movie, complete with a pale villain who she also plays, an improbably sexy love interest for her character, lots of past trauma and a revenge plot that’s hilariously overcomplicated. It also delivers a way, way overdue follow-up to Bridesmaids, the film she not only starred in but co-wrote with her creative partner Annie Mumolo, this time giving Mumolo a deservedly more prominent role as the other of its leads. But where that previous film aims for a decidedly more naturalistic tone, director Josh Greenbaum (Becoming Bond, Behind the Mask) goes absolutely for broke with Barb and Star, providing a terrific showcase for Wiig and Mumolo to explore both the silliness and sentimentality of their sheltered, daffy characters but not quite connecting the dots between all of the broad and more believable concepts in a fully cohesive way.
When the midwestern Jennifer Furniture where they work gets shut down, lifelong best friends Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) decide to visit Florida’s Vista Del Mar after their pal Debbie recommends it as a haven for middle-aged vacationers. They arrive in town on the same day as Edgar (Jamie Dornan), a love-starved henchman for Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also Wiig), comes to Vista Del Mar to exact revenge on her behalf in the hopes that she will make their relationship “official.” Feeling insecure about Sharon’s commitment to him, Edgar drowns his sorrows at the same bar where Barb and Star saddle up for a cocktail, and the three end up spending the night together. Star develops a serious crush on Edgar, but she doesn’t want to hurt Barb, who she mistakenly thinks likes him too; so she pretends to be sick to sneak off to see him, leaving Barb alone for all of the activities they planned to do together.
Meanwhile, Barb starts having fun but feels guilty that she isn’t waiting for her friend, lying about her adventures to protect Star’s feelings. Before long, each is embroiled in an elaborate deception to spare the other while making new discoveries about what’s possible in their own lives. Meanwhile, Sharon grows increasingly impatient with Edgar, eventually bringing in Darlie Bunkle (Damon Wayans Jr.) to kickstart her plan to unleash a torrent of killer mosquitoes and kill everyone in Vista Del Mar.
Like Bridesmaids before it, Mumolo and Wiig have created a story built around female friendship, a subject explored far too infrequently — and one that they ably demonstrate only facilitates other narrative possibilities. Here, they’re two women bonded by loss and failure (Barb’s husband died, Star’s cheated), but sustained by mutual support, so when their lives start up again as a result of this change of scenery — and eventually, perspective — their choices are driven by the earnest desire not to hurt or betray the other. (By comparison, there are too many movies to count where male pals fall for the same girl and spend the entire running time trying to sabotage each other.) It gives Barb and Star a sweetness that lifts up the delightfully weird and raunchy edges of the story, a tonal north star that keeps the audience engaged even when what’s happening goes fully wild or stops making complete sense.
It’s also that sweetness that keeps Barb and Star from simply becoming empty caricatures or a Saturday Night Live sketch on steroids. Making fun of provincial, middle-aged, midwestern women feels like low hanging fruit comedically, but there’s a clear affection for them that comes from within, perhaps more when they’re out of touch with what’s youthful or cosmopolitan than when they’re slightly more relatable to people whose chief cultural and sartorial flashpoints aren’t Jimmy Buffet and Costco. Unfortunately, it feels like that sometimes becomes a barrier to digging a bit more deeply — not just comedically, but into characters terrified of venturing outside of the bubble they’ve built as an identity and created to protect themselves from taking risks, much less getting hurt again. For example, of course their sense of female empowerment runs as deep (and modern) as Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman;” but their affection for culottes and middle-aged hunks wearing Tommy Bahama never quite gets the full workout it deserves, especially once the machinery of the plot takes over.
Again, however, Wiig and Mumolo clearly share so much genuine affection (not to mention creative camaraderie) with one another that they just light up the screen when they’re together. They make this kind of comedy look easy, and give these women a humanity that rises above the “type” they’re embodying. For better or worse, Wiig’s make-up as Sharon does most of the villain’s work, but she also seems to realize that, which might be why the script foregrounds Dornan’s Edgar and then throws in Wayans Jr.’s largely superfluous character and then Reyn Doi as Yoyo, a Barbra Streisand-loving little boy who helps carry out her fiendish plans. (It actually would have been fun to watch Yoyo square off against Edgar throughout the movie, Mini-Me versus Scott Evil style.) Meanwhile, Dornan does his best as Sharon’s second-in-command (and eventually, Star’s life-reaffirming soul mate), but the actor remains more skilled at scowling and looking good than being lovestruck, much less goofy.
Ultimately, Greenbaum juggles the film’s tangle of ideas effectively but not altogether smoothly; it becomes the kind of movie where you become so invested in individual elements or character growth that you forget (and perhaps become disappointed) there are plot points that still need to pay off or be resolved. (Mumolo and Wiig also kinda-sorta make it a musical with a handful of comedic interludes and a heathy cameo by Richard Cheese as a lounge singer, but lack the precision of a Lonely Island to make the songs land either as goofs or story-delivery devices.) But if the film suffers most in the looming shadow of Bridesmaids’ unassailable greatness, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar seems guaranteed to develop a cult following after people miss its original run and catch it in 15-minute segments on basic cable. Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig slightly painted themselves into a corner by waiting so long to deliver their second feature together, but there’s more than enough in this follow-up to inspire and entertain audiences, whether you’re in on the joke or don’t realize you might be one of the people being made fun of.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.
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