It’s tempting to write something like ‘they don’t make ‘em like this anymore!’ when talking about Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, but I’m not sure there was ever a time where movies like this were common. It partially feels like an Airplane! level spoof film, it also takes a lot of inspiration from comedies like Romy and Michele and Austin Powers, and it’s got the Popstar level of self-awareness, and yet it feels like its own unique, insane thing that could never be duplicated. And it proves that Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s Oscar nomination for writing the Bridesmaids script wasn’t just a fluke. And the two might have another instant classic on their hands.
Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) are two middle-aged friends living in small-town Nebraska. They live together, one is divorced and the other is widowed, and they work at a furniture store in town. Barb and Star just seem to enjoy each other’s company so much; one is never not completely in sync with the other. They have two twin-size beds in the same bedroom so they never can’t talk to each other. One will come into the store on the other’s off day and they’ll sit and talk on the same couch all day and they try to dissuade customers from buying said couch. After the store they work at closes, they take a friend’s advice to go to sunny, fictitious over-50 paradise Vista Del Mar, Florida. They cross paths with a handsome man (Jamie Dornan), who they don’t initially realize might be involved in a plan to kill everyone in town.
To get caught up in the plot mechanics of Barb and Star would be to miss the point entirely. It’s obvious from the minute we begin that this film doesn’t take place in any grounded sense of reality, and this is a heightened, surreal, wacky world of its own making, and all the better for it. If the trip to the villain’s underground lair in the first five minutes doesn’t tip you off, maybe the fully choreographed musical numbers that come out of nowhere or the dance remix of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On will. It doesn’t even feel right to compare Barb and Star to popular comedies of the past because it’s operating firmly within its own weirdo comedic lane and even though I guess it’s not really original, it does manage to feel undeniably fresh, which in itself is a feat in modern-day comedy.
I’m only mentioning this because it’s something we see in the first five minutes – Kristen Wiig is playing more than one role here. She also plays Sharon, the comically over-the-top villain to whom Jamie Dornan’s Edgar is an accomplice. And the reason she wants to destroy the town of Vista Del Mar is kind of beside the point and completely stupid in the best possible way, and even though we’re not exactly taking this seriously, it sure is a hoot to watch Wiig have fun with the challenge of a dual role.
Wiig and Mumolo have been friends for decades, and I would imagine eavesdropping on one of their conversations would not sound very different than listening in on Barb and Star. The two work comically off each other so well, and you can imagine there’s an infinite amount of unused B-roll of the two women improvising dialogue. I remember the Blu-ray release of Bridesmaids containing so much of this, and I’m hoping a physical media release of Barb and Star might include the same. The script feels so improv-heavy but it can’t possibly be, since there are so many callbacks and connections to earlier moments that pop up later, and I have no idea how much of this is painstakingly crafted or how much of it is improvised at the moment.
Jamie Dornan is playing his role with the kind of comedic self-awareness that reminds me of Chris Hemsworth in the under-appreciated Ghostbusters reboot. He comes so close to stealing the entire movie. Unfortunately connected to the Fifty Shades movies for several years, Dornan is finally free from them and like his costar, has been making increasingly interesting choices since, and I’m very happy to say he fits right into the absurdist, wacky world of Barb and Star. Actually wanting to be on the film set makes all the difference in the world, apparently. He seems to completely understand what movie this is, and he’s taking it just seriously enough, but never too much. His casting alone is kind of hilarious because Barb and Star are the exact kinds of women who would have been completely captivated by Christian Grey and would have shown up to the midnight premieres of all three movies. Dornan is completely responsible for one of the film’s very best scenes. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll know it when you see it.
Also, we have a ton of cameos from comedic heavyweights here – Damon Wayans Jr., Wendy McLendon Covey, Vanessa Bayer, Phyllis Smith, Rose Abdoo, Fortune Feimster, and others show up for brief moments, and everyone is having so much fun with this, and it’s totally infectious from beginning to end. I imagine this was a very fun film set to visit for a few days. Everyone just seems delighted and energized in every moment.
Josh Greenbaum directed this, and it’s his first narrative feature, after directing a few documentaries previously. He apparently took over when Wiig herself decided she didn’t also want to direct this and gave him the job. And I can’t say how much of this is his vision, or how much of it is Greenbaum doing what Wiig and Mumolo told him to do. But the bright, colorful, totally bonkers, and infectious joy of Barb and Star is evident from the minute we begin, and Greenbaum deserves some credit for that.
I also need to quickly mention the film’s costume designer, Trayce Gigi Field. Barb and Star looooove their culottes, and they become important later on in a way I can’t spoil. But everything every character is wearing here has such an offbeat, weirdo specificity to it, and I imagine this was a very fun project to take on. If we lived in a world where the Oscars didn’t just reward period pieces for costume design, this would absolutely receive some awards-season recognition.
I won’t say Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar is a quote-unquote perfect comedy film, but I would say it’s the perfect comedy for right now. I think after the last year of dread and uncertainty, I needed something like this that’s wacky, insane, and utterly joyous from beginning to end. Would Barb and Star have worked much better in a theater with the big audience of 50-something wine moms who come in a little tipsy and are having so much fun, you can’t help but be sucked into their energy? Of course, it would. But it still plays remarkably well at home. Sitting on the couch by myself, having to pause or rewind the movie because I have to catch my breath from laughing so hard and I just don’t want to miss a single joke, is something I haven’t experienced at all with a piece of media in the last year.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is about as close as you can get to an instant comedy classic. It’s an unabashedly bizarre, wacky good time that I look forward to enjoying again many times to come.