Film & Television

‘Wine Country’: Amy Poehler Takes Her BFFs to Napa

It happens to the best of us. If we’re lucky enough to maintain close friendships from our twenties through our thirties into our forties and fifties, we can’t help but notice that our topics of conversation evolve. Where we once spoke about wild late night adventures, we start commiserating about how tired we are and wonder aloud whether we can stay up for a once favorite show that doesn’t start until — gasp — 10 p.m. The “will he/won’t he call” excitement after a great first date is replaced by day-to-day gripes about spouses and children. And any talk of schedules invariably takes into account appointments with various doctors, dentists, therapists, homeopaths, and chiropractors. As middle-aged women, we listen to ourselves with a hint of horror and much bemusement.

Wine Country, the new movie directed by Amy Poehler and written by Liz Cackowski and Emily Spivey, has an oft-repeated phrase for this phenomenon: “The things we say now.”

Based on a real road trip taken a couple of years ago (and starring the comedic women who took that trip), Wine Country focuses on a sextet of women who met back in the 1990s when they all worked for a Chicago deep-dish pizza joint. Abby (Poehler), the group’s de facto cruise director, plans a trip to northern California to celebrate Rebecca’s (Rachel Dratch) 50th birthday. The other (mostly) enthusiastic tipplers include Naomi (Maya Rudolph), Catherine (Ana Gasteyer), Val (Paula Pell), and Jenny (Spivey). If these real-life names sound familiar, they should. Saturday Night Live had historically been a boys’ club despite — and to the frustration of — its original, undeniably genius women, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, and Jane Curtin. In the early 2000s, the show experienced a renaissance driven by the talented actresses and writers listed above. The only woman conspicuously absent is Tina Fey.

Oh wait, there she is! Fey appears in a supporting role as the tough-talking, wealthy widow who owns the gorgeous Napa Valley Airbnb that Abby rents for her besties. The SNL gang’s all here. Let the mayhem begin.

With Wine Country‘s cast and creative team, it seems nearly impossible that the movie could be anything but terribly smart and tremendously funny. Unfortunately, it never quite hits the highs one would expect from such a collection of comediennes. Early on, there’s a slightly confusing but entertaining sequence reminiscent of “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie in which the women make their plans from their various remote locations. Real-life interferes, as it is wont to do; some women express hesitation about the trip, others welcome the chance to run away from a bad job situation or a bed full of sleepless children. The women with husbands laugh that the men in their lives assume that the getaway will be filled with hugs, tears, and catfights. In this way, Poehler puts us on notice that this particular girls’ trip won’t be like that. (And the subtext seems to be that in most films about a group of women reconnecting, especially those written and directed by men that would indeed be what was in store.) It’s nice in a way to see a group of grown women behaving like adults. On the other hand, a bit more drama — not to mention comedy — would have been welcome.

Don’t get me wrong. There are wonderful moments. Like Naomi and Jenny’s heart-to-heart in the hot tub. Naomi mourns the death of Prince and asserts with casual certainty that if he were with them, he would serenade her and then make sweet, sweet love to her. Or, Val’s announcement after dinner that it’s “Dickmas,” as she hands out vibrators carefully chosen to match each of her friends’ unique personalities. (My favorite: Rebecca’s, that wears a party hat and plays “Happy Birthday.”) Or, Catherine’s suggestion that they microdose on Molly, only to start a group debate on whether Molly would interact with the myriad menopausal meds they’re all taking. These scenes, as delightful as they are, feel more like individual skits rather than a cohesive whole.

One problem is that, while the affection between the women (they are close friends in real life, as they are onscreen) feels genuine, each woman is pretty much a stock character. Abby is a divorcée who has lost her job and takes charge of the vacation to feel valuable again. Rebecca is a therapist who helps others, but can’t seem to see that she’s in a toxic marriage herself. Naomi is an overworked and overtired mother of a large family. Catherine is a successful entrepreneur and workaholic, who can’t get a decent Wi-Fi signal in their lush but secluded surroundings. Jenny is a timid and germaphobic homebody. And Val is a larger than life lesbian eager to try out her new knees on a new hook-up in some mutually satisfying position. These types of oversimplified personas work well in sketch comedy, which, in all fairness, is where these women claimed their fame. In a feature-length film, they don’t give us quite enough texture or leave the characters enough room to grow in an interesting way.

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  • LK May 23, 2019 at 7:53 am

    Yes, women need and should cherish their female friends. But, do they have to get drunk to do it? Just another example of media encouraging excess alcohol use among women.