In theory, there’s a lot to like about Wine Country. It’s two whole hours devoted to women in their 40s and 50s, an often invisible demographic in film. Rarely is it about marriage or children. It stars watchable and funny women. It passes the Beschdel Test in spades.
But with Wine Country, streaming now on Netflix, the result is as bland as the biscuit and asparagus tones that permeate the backdrop.
The film, which is Amy Poehler’s maiden feature directorial effort, follows six friends who were once servers together at a Chicago pizza place. Through love, nostalgia and force of habit, they’ve stayed in touch ever since. It’s Rebecca’s (Rachel Dratch) 50th birthday, and Abby (Poehler), that friend who can never just relax, has planned a packed itinerary for their long weekend holiday in Napa Valley. None of them care much about wine, but they like getting drunk, and they like kicking back in flannel pyjamas and dancing to Kim Wilde and Bel Biv Devoe with people who get them.
Some of the friends are successful, like Ana Gasteyer’s Catherine the pizza chain owner, while another is out of a job. Sometimes they talk about each other behind their backs. Sometimes their neuroses are on display, like Abby losing it when no one’s into hurrying to the group drone shot. They’re all in different places in their lives, with different priorities and methods of communicating, and therein lies the movie’s tepid, underwhelming friction.
It’s not enough. The backdrop is Napa-esque, with organic vineyards, pretentious art shows and people wearing airy white clothing. The house they rent looks like it’s been plucked from a local real estate magazine, so there’s never really much to look at. There are tensions that percolate between the women, and a couple of minor secrets kept, but there are no big plot hills to climb in Wine Country. The conflict is too muted to resist fast forwarding, or to amount to any significant climax. It’s basically a display of the various musings and variations of life that exist at 50, a round-robin look at midlife, and the dullness of the film sort of makes it look older than it is.
It’s not the pedigree. The actors come from the SNL orbit, and they’ve entertained us for years. Maya Rudolph has always been an underrated natural. Emily Spivey and Paula Pell, both SNL writers, carry their own. (They’re not groundbreaking actors, but neither is Zach Galifianakis.) Jason Schwartzman is fun as Devon, who drives them around in a van, requests Sublime and comes with the house.
And who doesn’t love, while watching an awards show, to see Poehler and Tina Fey take the stage and slay the audience with their sharp, on-point humour? “Matthew McConaughey did amazing work this year,” Fey said at the Golden Globes in 2014. “For his role in Dallas Buyer’s Club, he lost 45 pounds. Or what actresses call being in a movie.”
Wine Country needs more of that. It lacks the big laughs of Bridesmaids, the acidic humour of Mean Girls, the usual feminist magic of Poehler and Fey. It’s good that there’s an industry willingness to make more of these films, but with all its possibility, it needed to be more. 2.5/5
Note: A modified version of this review appeared in The Film Experience.
Directed by Amy Poehler
Written by Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski
Starring Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Emily Spivey, Paula Pell, Maya Erskine, Cherry Jones, Jason Schwartzman
Runtime: 103 minutes