Review: Wine Country is a waste of a great ensemble cast

Director    Amy Poehler
Written By    Emily Spivey, Liz Cackowski
Starring    Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell, Emily Spivey, Cherry Jones, Maya Erskine, Tina Fey, Jason Schwartzman
Release    8 MAY (US) 10 MAY (UK)
Review: Wine Country is a waste of a great ensemble cast Movie Review


Grade C-

Luke Whiston

17th June 2019

One thing that fascinates me about film-making is not the how of how movies are made, but the when. We see stars grow in real time these days and very often, once their careers have developed enough, they become producers - meaning the shows and films we watch follow their whims. That explains why we get a glut of movies about having babies, followed by a wave of thirties singleton rom-coms, and these subjects mould the wider zeitgeist. And now we're entering what should be the most interesting phase, where all your favourite stars are burnt out and holding grudges: the mid-life crisis. Fight! Fight! Fight!

There are no fights in Wine Country, or explosions for that matter. In fact I don't think this film is aimed at me at all. But who else is a film about a group of middle-aged, middle class women on a wine tasting tour aimed at except for exactly who you see on screen? Is that a controversial opinion? Or is it only controversial because the cast is almost entirely women and we're in a risk-averse culture? Did I accidentally do a Gervais? Did I offend you?? I didn't mean to, I'm sorry, please keep reading.

That doesn't mean I can't be objective - I just shouldn't objectify, man. There's a lot of curiosity and expectation around the cast, which includes Amy Poehler (who also directs and produces), Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and a bunch of other recognisable faces from across the landscape of US film and TV. It's a heavyweight comedy ensemble, so it's a shame the material they're working with is so decidedly unfunny. Actually proceedings are downright fucking glum.

*image not indicative of actual viewing experience

We follow the women as they head off to the famous vineyards of Napa County, California for a birthday get together. There's Abby (Poehler), Naomi (Rudolph), Catherine (Ana Gasteyer), Val (Paula Pell), Jenny (Emily Spivey) and Rebecca (Rachel Dratch), who is hitting the big five-oh. Abby is the matriarch of the group, organising activities to the minute and getting upset when things don't work out exactly as planned. Naomi has kids and is expecting a worrying call from her doctor. Val is gay and looking for love, but fears she may be too old. One is a workaholic, etc.

You get the idea: they've all got Relatable Issues, but none are particularly interesting beyond providing some drama to link the activities. The activities themselves are hateful little bubbles, with the group taking out their increasing frustration on staff because, I don't know, rude = funny? This seems like one of those films where everyone got in a room with a rough idea of what was happening and ad-libbed, expecting the results to be natural cohesive comedy genius. You know the ones:"we're trying but nothing is landing, maybe if we say 'yeah' 'yeah' back and forth and gesticulate." It's the bane of modern comedy and doesn't work whatever your gender.

the comedy and drama aspects struggle to coexist, and flounder as a consequence
The highlight is Tina Fey, who puts in an unpredictable turn as the mildly jaded owner of the house the women stay at, popping up in exactly the sort of role John Candy or Bill Murray would have breathed if this was the '80s male version. It's an offbeat weirdness you wish they'd put in more of - Poehler and Rudolph's wheelhouse certainly stretches to the surreal - but the script seems unwilling to take risks, going for straight dramatic instead. The problem with this is the lacking comedic tone drags things down, meaning both the comedy and drama aspects struggle to coexist, and flounder as a consequence.

If there are any successes to be taken from Wine Country, it's in proving that a cast and crew composed entirely of women can make a film without any stinky men sticking their oars in. Who knew a talented, experienced, versatile, connected bunch of entertainment sorts at the top of their game could produce such results? Not sexists. It's a shame more attention wasn't paid to the laughs - this just comes across as an anthology of boring stories, which there are already plenty of on Netflix (like a Beige Mirror. I made myself laugh. Look what you've done, Wine Country - I had to provide my own entertainment!), unless you're a middle-age woman and it might be exactly what you need to see at this point in your life because these are also your comedy heroes going through the same stuff as you are too. Like I said, it's not for me.

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