The big chilled
Amy Poehler’s wine-soaked comedy doesn’t have legs
Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph in Wine Country
Like a cheap table wine, Wine Country plays to the simplest, broadest of palates. It’s a surprising letdown given the comedic varietals of this all-star vintage.
Amy Poehler, in her directorial debut, assembles her Saturday Night Live alum besties for an original Netflix comedy inspired by their recent, real-life, girls-only West Coast vineyard excursions. Yet even with such aromatic notes of hilarity from the likes of Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer and Tina Fey, plus writer-actors Paula Pell and Emily Spivey—the latter co-wrote the screenplay and deserves a sitcom of her own—this bawdy blend of modern comedians tries to spike a script that hasn’t fully fermented.
For a something that should feel personal, Wine Country is clichéd and commodified. Some bits are pulled from their actual trips (a scene of vibrator gags, for one), but they’re shoehorned into a typical plot filled with stock character archetypes (including Poehler’s Leslie Nope-ish Type A organizer) who undergo predictable arcs.
The women play a group of longtime friends who gather in California’s Sonoma Valley for the 50th birthday celebration of Dratch’s Rebecca. Inevitably, once they get past the first round of quasi-uninhibited partying, the vacation finds each woman at a defining crossroads where life didn’t turn out like they’d planned. Even Gasteyer’s workaholic TV celeb—there’s always one in these reunion movies, it seems—has compromised her passion for the demands of commerce.
Rather than events unfolding with more meaningful intent, Wine Country is driven by various sketch-level ideas of intoxicated humor that never fully intoxicate. Some scenes land better than others—most involving Rudolph to some degree (like her day-drunk public singing)—and each earn their share of laughs, but rarely do the antics audaciously blindside (like, say, they did in “Bridesmaids”).
Oddly enough, the funniest characters are the supporting scene-stealers, from Jason Schwartzman’s in-house tour guide to Cherry Jones’ pissy psychic who foresees the worst rather than the best, and does so with a smug, impatient edge.
There’s some witty elitist satire, too, but only hints of that compared to similar territory explored more deeply in writer/director Alexander Payne’s Oscar-winning “Sideways.” In addition, the most awkward featured role comes from Tina Fey who feels miscast as the gruff, surly widowed owner of the rental home.
Woven throughout are more emotional moments that, increasingly, become the film’s most effective ones. Even so, they’re often rooted in the cathartic trope of women beating themselves up over perceived failures only to be reaffirmed about how strong they truly are.
Yes, that can be a common pitfall worth depicting, but here each example just feels contrived. Poehler’s self-aware enough to have her Abby remark that their struggles reek of white privilege (these reckonings suffered during a wine country weekend, no less), but that acknowledgement doesn’t lead to any new perspective or bittersweet gratitude.
Patching it all together is a 1980s retro-pop soundtrack, delivered via group-syncs or montages, that serves as a default go-to when all else fails. Aside from a handful of gorgeous landscape shots, Wine Country doesn’t even work as an escapist travelogue, marking yet another missed opportunity in a straight-to-streaming effort filled with them.