It’s been almost ten years since Bridesmaids, the blockbuster that turned Kristen Wiig into a movie star and made Oscar nominees of Wiig and her co-writer and longtime comedy partner Annie Mumolo. What felt at the time like the beginning of something big did, over the years, prove more of an isolated event. Mumolo has been acting in the years since, and has written some more, most notably the original screenplay that would be mangled into the David O. Russell movie Joy. Wiig resisted the usual path of comedy stardom and did a lot of curious indies, building an oddball resume peppered by brief forays into larger fare like the ill-fated Ghostbusters reboot and the, well, somewhat ill-fated Wonder Woman: 1984. It’s not that Wiig and Mumolo didn’t live up to the promise of Bridesmaids—it’s that they almost seemed to reject it.
Now, a decade later, they are reuniting as a duo with Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (February 12, on demand), which they wrote and star in (the film was directed by Josh Greenbaum). They play two middle-aged ladies from the vague middle of the country who take a wacky vacation to a technicolor fantasia version of Florida. Gone is any of the sharp social observation of Bridesmaids; this is no attempt to capture a zeitgeist. It is, instead, as silly and arbitrary as comedy gets, an absurdist spree that brings to mind Hot Rod and MacGruber and other out-there flights of fancy from former SNL-ers.
Which is both letdown and delight. It’s a letdown because the movie, in all its goof and fluff, doesn’t make much of an impact. The film is an enjoyable enough hundred or so minutes, and then it’s gone. It’s a lark, a lengthy sketch that doesn’t have much beneath it. We barely know who Barb and Star are—mostly they just talk funny and love culottes. Comedy needn’t be substantial or about something to work, certainly. But after a ten-year buildup of sorts, I had hoped for some more oomph from Wiig and Mumolo.
But, again, it is fun. Wiig and Mumolo are essentially doing a longer riff on Wiig’s Target Lady character from Saturday Night Live, all her Upper Midwest flat affect laced with a kind of manic enthusiasm. There’s a bit of Sue, the woman perpetually unable to keep a secret, in there, too. The easy joke to make would be that these two dedicated roommates and coworkers live sad, unfulfilled lies, and that their constant cheer is a hyper overcompensation for existential despair—as so many cheap comedies do, many of them misreads of the sneakily compassionate work of filmmakers like Todd Solondz or Mike White. Some of that dark pathos is lurking in Barb and Star, but Wiig and Mumolo are careful to give them the roundness of confidence and agency.
They’re sexual beings, for one—not neutered caricatures. Carnal desire arrives in the form of Jamie Dornan, bouncing strangely off of the recent dud Wild Mountain Thyme and landing in this most ridiculous of comedies. He’s actually a better fit for Barb and Star, fooling around at full hunk glare. Dornan—who gets an honest to goodness musical number in the film—plays the henchman/lover of a Bondian supervillain, also played by Wiig. Barb and Star is that kind of movie: there’s an evil plot unwittingly stumbled into, a cartoonish megalomaniac pulling the levers, a fight to save humanity. (Or, at least, the community of Vista Del Mar.)
All that plot doesn’t get in the way of gonzo one-off jokes and cameos, including two from very big stars that I won’t spoil here. I did find myself wondering how these weird little roles were explained to these celebrities, though, and what made them want to play along. I guess the power of Bridesmaids, and general esteem toward Wiig, can get people to agree to a lot. That loyalty sells much of Barb and Star; there’s even a slight swell of pride in watching them go nuts.
One of the reported compromises of Bridesmaids was that Wiig and Mumolo were asked to add in a romantic subplot, to make the film more marketable. Here, Wiig and Mumolo seem utterly unconcerned with demographic appeal. Barb and Star is the kind of ludicrous, tongue stuck out and arms waving comedy that plenty of men have gotten to make over the years, but very few women have. It’s exciting to see Wiig and Mumolo so brazenly risk alienation, even if the movie they made is more curio than classic. Then again, who knows? Barb and Star does fit the profile of a movie that could gradually achieve cult status. Its particular vernacular needs only to sync up with enough fellow oddballs’ brains.
My weirdo brain would have liked a better rate of return on the film’s jokes, though. For every one dumb thing that works, there are two or three that don’t. Which is to be expected, I suppose, when so much spaghetti is being thrown willy-nilly at the wall. Though not everything sticks, it is still a pleasure to watch Wiig and Mumolo tossing stuff around, making a happy mess that’s all their own.
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