I didn’t get a chance to watch a new cinema release this week so I turned to Netflix. I’ve not really been keeping up with Netflix original films of late. I watched Rebel Wilson’s Isn’t It Romantic one boring bank holiday weekend. It was almost as dire as I’d expected but I guess it wasn’t all bad. Not as funny as it thought it was but the overall message wasn’t as dire as it seemed. But it still wasn’t enough to suggest that Netflix had turned itself around in terms of original comedy films. We’ve discussed my feelings about this in the past but, as I’m never against talking about it, I’ll remind you of them. Netflix comedy films suck. They are never original or clever. It’s just basic stories mixed with big-name stars to draw people in. To be fair, it’s a fantastic strategy in terms of getting viewers but it doesn’t make for critically acclaimed features. But, with the announcement that Amy Poehler’s directorial debut was coming to Netflix, surely things were about to change? I mean Poehler reuniting with plenty of SNL alumni in a female-based comedy about middle age? It sounded like it could be perfect.
It’s safe to say that SNL isn’t the institution that it once was. Sketches don’t tend to make as much of an impact anymore and people regularly bemoan that it’s gone downhill. You regularly hear people wishing the like of Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey would come back. These people, we’re regularly told, were some of the last real talents that the show had. So, it’s safe to say that SNL alumni are very well-regarded. And you’d think Amy Poehler wouldn’t have a great deal to do when she brought directed her old castmates in her own Netflix original film.
The story was inspired by a 2016 trip that the gang took to celebrate Rachel Dratch’s 50th birthday. This time, a group of 6 female friends is going on a wine tasting tour of Napa. Organised by the uptight Abby (Amy Poehler) for Rebecca’s (Dratch) 50th birthday. The women met when they were waitresses at a Pizza restaurant and, though they have all gone their separate ways, have remained close. But, as we quickly come to see, the mix of old friends, wine, and a tight schedule leads to a lot of conflict. There’s plenty of drunk acting, singing, vibrators, and dancing. Dear god, there was a lot of dancing.
Poehler’s Abby puts all her efforts into organising the perfect trip because she recently lost her job. Though she doesn’t want to tell everyone, which doesn’t make much sense. Rebbeca is apparently dealing with the big 5-0 but she is in denial about her terrible marriage. Though she’s doing better than young-at-heart lesbian, Val (Paula Pell), who is looking for love in all the wrong places. Whilst Naomi (Maya Rudolph) is avoiding calling her doctor back so you can guess what’s going on there. Trying to make the most of the trip, she is continually annoyed that Catherine (Ana Gasteyer) can’t leave her work behind her. Catherine has always felt like the odd-one-out of the group and worries she’s being left out. Something Jenny (Emily Spivey) could only dream of. She is a depressed writer who regularly avoids social engagements. It’s quite a group of women but, thankfully, they all share a common love of dancing in scenes that go on way too long.
There was a great deal of promise that came when these 6 women joined forces to make a film. With a script written by ex-SNL writers Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski and a cast of some of the funniest female comedy performers, Wine Country should have been something great. But it never really quite got off the ground. This isn’t one of those fine wines that you keep in your cellar for a rainy day. Although, it’s not those cheap bottles of plonk that you used to pre-drink as a student. It’s a nice mid-range that tastes fine but won’t leave you feeling guilty about spending too much.
There are plenty of funny moments in the film and there can be no denying that the chemistry between the group. The whole thing is a very comfortable and safe kind of film. There isn’t a lot of plot to work with so most of the scenes are just the women talking. It relies on the group’s history to fill in the gaps. And, from a group of women who were once on the cutting edge of comedy, it doesn’t really push anything. I guess you could say this was because of the topics in play but that doesn’t feel like the right excuse. There was no real need to hold back quite so much and it leaves everything feeling very one-note. Admittedly, it’s a nice note but, as anyone who has ever heard a song before knows, multiple notes are always better.
The characters are all fairly stock standards but they mostly work thanks to the women playing them. It is the supporting cast that really feels out of place. Tina Fey turns up every now and then as the gruff owner of the house the women are staying in. It’s a weird performance that, at times, feels like the best thing in the film and, at others, the worst. When she was on-screen I found myself wondering why she was there but when she was absent I wished she was back. Which is a much more positive reaction than the one I had to Jason Schwartzman. He turns up occasionally as Devon, the chef/driver/concubine that comes with the house. Now I love Jason Schwartzman as much as anyone but he doesn’t half suck the fun out of this film. It just never works.
Wine Country is an odd kind of film. Part of me really didn’t like it but the rest of my loved it. I thought the story went on forever and was super slow. Yet, at the same time, I wanted more scenes of these women just drunkenly chatting. I wanted more singing and dancing but also hated that so many of the jokes were “don’t middle age women dance weird”. With the lack of narrative on offer, Wine Country should have been a deep character study of these old friends. However, it feels a bit more like a basic sitcom set-up with stereotypical characters. I know I love these women but I’m less sure about how I feel about this film. And I don’t like it.