Middle-aged women are funny–to themselves as well as to everybody else–and no one knows it better than they do. Plus, there are few enough roles out there for middle-aged women actors, funny or otherwise. So Wine Country, directed by Amy Poehler for Netflix and featuring a cast made up of former Saturday Night Live alumnae, should be the ideal Venn-diagram center of those two worlds.
If only. Wine Country springs to life here and there, but there’s something dispiriting about the way these women seem to be working hard for laughs rather than just being funny. Rebecca (Rachel Dratch) is about to turn 50, and Abby (Poehler) has planned a getaway weekend for her and a group of close-knit friends: there’s Catherine (Ana Gasteyer), a businesswoman who can’t stay off her phone; Val (Paula Pell), single, randy and on the hunt for a new girlfriend; Naomi (Maya Rudolph), a wife and mom who, unbeknownst to the group, is waiting for the results of a cancer test; and Jenny (Emily Spivey, who also co-wrote the film, with Liz Cackowski), a neurotic grouch who doesn’t really want to be there, though there’s emotional generosity beneath her crabbiness. Tina Fey pops in as Tammy, the plain-talkin’, log-totin’ owner of the house the group has rented.
It’s a weekend of bickering, bonding and hangovers, in which these performers strive to capture the way women talk when men are out of the picture. Mostly, the characters show unwilting support for one another, though they can’t resist peeling off into groups of two to talk behind the others’ backs. (The movie makes a running gag out of the classic preamble “May I just say something?”)
But even this mild degree of cattiness becomes tiresome, if only because you know there’s a cushy group hug waiting at the end. The finest moments of Wine Country are the ones in which the characters show how little they know, or care, about wine, and the dumbest, most tossed-off jokes work best. “This is good, what’s it called again?” Jenny asks Abby as the two stand around at a tasting, sipping daintily from their goblets. “White wine,” Abby says, her voice as dry as the frosty surface of a sauvignon blanc grape. What a dorky joke! Maybe it wasn’t even in the script. But it’s almost enough to make you do a spit take.
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