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Bemoaning the ever-decreasing quality of Saturday Night Live has become almost as much of an institution as actually watching Saturday Night Live, its current season so punishingly unfunny that it’s often hard to remember a time when that wasn’t the case. Reminders are usually embedded elsewhere with ex-writers and cast members reliably cropping up on the big and small screen to show us what a fertile breeding ground the show has been for comedy in the last 45 years. It’s hard not to watch the Netflix comedy Wine Country without thinking about what brought its seven main stars and two main writers together, the film a showcase of their combined talents and proof of SNL’s long-lasting influence.
Inspired by a 2016 getaway, the film follows a group of friends reuniting to celebrate a birthday in Napa Valley, California. It’s been planned by control freak Abby (Amy Poehler), whose detailed itinerary for the weekend doesn’t allow much breathing room, something that introduces tension among the group. But they’re all keen to avoid problems and, in turn, playing up to a misogynistic cliche of women arguing with each other. It’s easier said than done, though, with Naomi (Maya Rudolph) harbouring a secret, Catherine (Ana Gasteyer) struggling to detach herself from work, Val (Paula Pell) obsessing over a waitress she’s fallen for, Jenny (Emily Spivey) trying to keep her anxieties at bay and birthday girl Rebecca (Rachel Dratch) refusing to accept the implications of turning 50.
There’s not a lot of plot at play in Wine Country, which is both a good and bad thing, depending on the scene. When we’re trusted to just hang out with the women as they drink and riff off each other, it’s a blast. There’s an engaging, hard-to-fake chemistry between the group and while scenes often have a naturalistic tone, there’s a refreshing lack of indulgence, something that can afflict comedies populated by real-life friends. It’s loose, yet disciplined, avoiding those rambling Apatowian scenes of improv that at their worst can feel boringly protracted.
It’s virtually impossible not to gain pleasure from these scenes, whether it’s Pell gifting the group bespoke vibrators, Spivey listing her ground rules for a playlist (“I don’t want any Quentin Tarantino soundtracks. I’m done”) or Rudolph, one of the all-time great fake drunks, messily grieving Prince in a hot tub. Unlike other post-Bridesmaids comedies about a group of women letting loose, there’s also a refusal to play into certain repetitive tropes. While there’s a heavy amount of drinking, it doesn’t lead to an escalation of raucous trailer-ready moments. The women are self-confessed nerds and in one scene, which felt like direct commentary on what we might expect to happen, Gasteyer suggests they all micro-dose MDMA, an idea that falls flat with a chorus of disinterest.
We assume conflict will arrive, and it does, although there’s a well-observed buildup, with a sharp series of scenes that see the women pair off to casually criticise each other and a smart script, from Spivey and Liz Cackowski (who delivers a funny cameo as a pretentious wine expert) that refrains from offering us a clear antagonist, each woman a believable balance. When the script does try to force a more conventional narrative, creaks can be heard, especially in an underwhelming sequence of physical comedy near the end. Starry cameos are kept to a minimum and while Cherry Jones’s grim-minded tarot card reader is a hysterically funny inclusion, Jason Schwartzman’s paella-obsessed chef is far less successful, sucking the comedy out of the film when on screen. Tina Fey’s gruff local falls somewhere between the two, at times feeling miscast and at others, making you wish she had more screen-time.
In fact, more screen-time all round wouldn’t have been a bad thing, the group proving such addictive company that a limited series might have been more welcome, providing us with even more of the wine-soaked freewheeling that works so well. Poehler, sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, is a functional film-maker who realises that her film isn’t in need of a great many visual flourishes in order to fly. Rudolph is a standout, allowed to be part of the fun in a way that she wasn’t in Bridesmaids, while Pell and Spivey, both predominantly known for their writing, are surprising aces in the hole. In another more commercially restricted film, they might have been coerced out by producers wanting bigger names but as with many Netflix originals, there’s something unfiltered and unsullied about Wine Country. There’s no Apatow-enforced romantic subplot, for example, and it feels like a film about women made by women.
The very fact that Wine Country is about a group of women approaching or surviving their 50s makes it depressingly unusual. The post-Bridesmaids uplift in films about female friendship has been slight and the films since have quite often focused on either younger women (see: Rough Night, Someone Great and Ibiza) or older caricatures (see: Book Club and the upcoming Poms). There’s a comfortable embrace of ageing in the film that goes a bit deeper than jokes about menopause, each character increasingly aware of their mortality.
Wine Country is scrappy and, at times, misjudged but it’s also very, very funny with a cast of women whose collective charm makes the patchier moments forgivable. Watching it with wine helps, too.
Source: The Guardian
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