Comedians in middle age are not supposed to make movies like Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar. Kristen Wiig, the film’s star, producer, and co-writer, is around the age that fellow SNL luminaries like Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, and Eddie Murphy were when they decided to dip into more family-oriented comedies, try out more serious roles, and/or step back from the grind of superstar brand maintenance. Wiig, meanwhile, nearly a decade removed from her breakout hit Bridesmaids, has reunited with that film’s co-writer, Annie Mumolo, for something gloriously, exuberantly silly. Barb & Star throws into sharp relief just how infrequently a major comedy star makes a gag-heavy free-for-all that actually works. Wiig even takes on a makeup-heavy second role that recalls both Murphy and Myers—particularly the latter, as she essentially plays her own Sia-resembling version of Dr. Evil.
Not that Barb (Mumolo, also co-starring) or Star (Wiig) are aware of any archnemesis for most of the film’s run time. As a comic duo, they’re sort of a middle-aged Nebraskan version of Dumb And Dumber’s Harry and Lloyd or Beavis and Butt-Head—less because of their intelligence levels (they’re more daftly oblivious than stupid) than their soulmate-level shared sensibility. Though the movie gradually teases out a few key differences—Barb is a widow while Star is a divorcé; Barb is more fearful of new experiences; they each use a slightly different pronunciation of “caramel” despite their midwestern accents—these women live together, work together, and seem to spend nearly every other waking moment together. They share an enthusiasm for poofy mom haircuts, “full jewelry,” and culottes, among other signifiers for (caricatured) women of a certain age and socioeconomic position.
So when they both lose their jobs and are booted from their only social outlet—a “talking club” led by the tyrannical Debbie (Vanessa Bayer)—Barb and Star decide to go away together on vacation. Barb needs a little prodding, but Star is ready to see the ocean for the first time in Vista Del Mar, Florida, a paradise of hot colors and seashell-themed trinkets. Their modest plans for a week away are thrown off by a chance meeting with Edgar (Jamie Dornan), a handsome young man enmeshed in a mass-murder plot engineered by a mysterious woman (Wiig again) who operates out of what could pass for a lair in a Spy Kids installment. (Again: This movie is very silly.)
It’s a flash of casting genius, making Christian Grey himself the impetus for the lead characters’ lusty reawakening, like a Book Club subplot on a mild form of hallucinogens. At one point, Dornan is in something like a love triangle of Wiigs, and his straight-faced commitment to this ridiculous character makes some already amusing material absolutely sing, occasionally literally. The emotional stuntedness that made Fifty Shades Of Grey so laughable here gets played for actual laughs.
The Fifty Shades connection goes uncommented upon in the movie itself, illustrating the restraint utilized by Wiig, Mumolo, and director Josh Greenbaum. Granted, “restraint” may seem like a strange word for a movie whose tenuous reality is flexible enough to accommodate people being shot out of cannons and a submarine piloted by a prepubescent boy. In this context, it means that Barb & Star trusts its gags to fly by without spinning them out into tedious bits. This is particularly true of its loopy sight gags. Remember sight gags? Funny things comedy audiences were once expected to look at, find funny, and move on from, without belabored dialogue explaining it to the cheap seats? Greenbaum has an eye for them, which is probably why this studio comedy never feels like it’s been ruthlessly carved up from a series of listless improvisations and other stalling tactics.
To be clear, some of the intended laughs don’t land, and occasionally the movie gets a little poky. Specifically, a few stray moments feel like non sequiturs or in-jokes inexplicably sent up to the big leagues because Wiig and Mumolo had too much fun writing them. Yet this kitschy, weirdo movie has such a bizarre clarity of vision about what it wants to do that a few biffed jokes are almost part of its charm, like its sketch-comedy accents and intentional defiance of logic.
At the center is Wiig, who feels free in a way she rarely has before on movie screens—often seemingly by design, given how often she’s opted for supporting parts or indie dramedies over big marquee vehicles. Maybe that was useful training for Star, a woman who comes to realize just how hard she’s been fighting back midlife malaise. The disappointment and yearning Wiig taps into here isn’t as raw as the thirtysomething blues of Bridesmaids, and obviously she hasn’t really spent the past decade sharing a modest home in Nebraska with her best friend. But there’s still a sun-cracked authenticity to the movie’s day-glo day-seizing, as if Wiig is herself correcting a regret that she never made her own Austin Powers or Hot Rod. Whatever her reasons for embracing this wackiness, she and Mumolo have made an unapologetic delight.