Wine Country is actively unfunny.
It pains me to write the next sentence. Wine Country, Amy Poehler’s directorial debut now streaming on Netflix, is bad. Its cast (mostly of middle-aged women) couldn’t have been better. Its setting is gorgeous. Its premise, so promising. So what went wrong? Many things, I suspect. But it all boils down to a single mortal sin: The screenplay simply isn’t funny. No, it’s worse than that. Wine Country is actively unfunny.
How can this be? Eighty-five percent of the cast is hilarious in other settings. Starting with Poehler, who also co-stars, there’s Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph (!), Paula Pell, Cherry Jones (!!). Throw in some Jason Schwartzman as the token dude and you’ve got the textbook example of a dream cast. In a way, you’d think these seasoned performers could elevate a mediocre screenplay through sheer force of will. Alas, no. We might as well ask them to reverse the Earth’s rotation by running backwards.
Wine Country has a familiar, lived-in premise. Rebecca (Dratch) is turning 50 and her far-flung friends, who originally met as waitresses at a Chicago pizza joint many years earlier, are throwing her a blowout birthday weekend at a rented house in Napa. A handful of relatively recent comedies immediately comes to mind: Girls Trip, The Hangover and Sideways. Given its SNL-heavy bona fides, so does Bridesmaids. By contrast, those gems might as well be Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Searchers and, well, Bridesmaids.
The joke density here is low, and so too is the chance that a given joke will land. Because the writing feels so thinly sketched, the comic timing here seems wildly out of whack and, at times, nonexistent. Promising comedic set pieces come and go (a visit from a tarot card reader, a trip to an organic winery, a drunken meal at a fancy restaurant) with nary a chuckle to be had. Women this funny would almost have to intentionally sabotage a scene to not deliver at least one or two laughs here and there. Is this a Producers-type scenario, with Poehler as our modern day Max Bialystock?
Besides being unfunny, the screenplay, by Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski (former SNL writers, both), also does no justice to its characters, who are defined by a single recognizable trait. Rebecca is the unhappy wife. Catherine (Gasteyer) is the workaholic. Naomi (Rudolph) is the exhausted mother of four. Abby (Poehler) is the recently unemployed control freak (basically a watered-down Leslie Knope). And on and on.
Wine Country is based on actual vacations these real-life friends have taken in the past, which almost makes its utter failure harder to bear. You can imagine a highly improvised version of Wine Country, something akin to Michael Winterbottom’s acclaimed Trip series starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Need I point out that most of these women are giants of improv?
There are glimmers of that hypothetical film in the scenes where the ladies gleefully sing to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” and Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” while being shuttled in a van from one winery to the next. But that’s all they are, brief flashes of what could’ve been. We instead get a well-intentioned and deeply flawed misfire. It’s genuinely wonderful to see these excellent actresses share the screen. All the more reason why it’s so painful to suffer their antics with boredom and confusion.