A pleasant and perfectly watchable comedy that would have died on the vine in theaters, “Wine Country” is casual viewing done right. Like so many Netflix Originals, Amy Poehler’s effervescent feature directorial debut is best enjoyed on a soft couch, after a hard day, and with a large glass of pinot grigio in each hand. While there are occasional notes of heaviness — as there must be in any honest account of the joys and miseries of getting so much older than you ever thought possible — this light but knowing story about six women struggling to get over themselves and celebrate each other is just fermented enough to leave you buzzed.
Written by Liz Cackowski and Emily Spivey, “Wine Country” establishes its premise with a hyper-efficient opening montage that lays all its cards on the table. Rebecca (Rachel Dratch) doesn’t want to make a big deal about turning 50, but Abby (Poehler) — a neurotic micro-manager who’s desperately trying to ignore the fact that she just lost her job — wants to make the biggest deal about it. That casual birthday weekend Abby’s planning in Napa? It just became a do-or-die mission to reassert some control over her life.
And she’s not going to be the only person on this trip who finds themselves confronting a major life crisis. Naomi (Maya Rudolph) is a mother of five who’s avoiding the ominous voicemail her doctor left on her phone. Catherine (Ana Gasteyer) is a workaholic whose brand is at a stressful inflection point. Val (Paula Pell) jokes about “taking her new knees for a spin,” but she hasn’t had a girlfriend in years, and it’s clear that her acerbic humor is masking a litany of fears about her body and basic appeal. And then there’s the semi-anonymous character Spivey wrote for herself; every group of friends needs that one person who’s just happy to be there.
All of this is established within roughly two minutes of screen time, as “Wine Country” inundates viewers with an “Alita: Battle Angel” level of world-building right from the top so that the rest of the movie can sink into a relaxed hangout vibe. For all the background info we get — these women have been good friends since they all worked in the same Chicago pizzeria a few decades back — the context is too precise for the comedy to breathe; this is the kind of film where it feels like the characters didn’t really exist before the first scene, and will cease to exist after the last one. Still, it’s fun to watch them while they’re passing through.
Of course, the chemistry between this cast of familiar colleagues is so lived-in that it provides its own sense of history, particularly once Tina Fey shows up as Tammy, the amusingly brusque owner of the Napa Airbnb. She makes a meal of the film’s most crucial supporting role — if “Wine Country” can be thought of as a cuttlefish paella, Fey is the heavy splash of olive oil that holds the whole thing together — playing Tammy as the truth-teller the story needs in order for it to stay broad without sinking into cliché. “You just have to talk to each other all weekend and drink a lot of wine, what could go wrong?” she cracks, later referring to her guests’ various resentments as “a haunted forest of toxic jibber jabber.”
As straightforward and single-minded as these characters’ issues might be, something rings true about how they coalesce into a mid-life obsession with self-improvement. That feeling is galvanized by a bitterly funny Cherry Jones, whose cameo as an overpriced fortune teller is one of the only laugh-out-loud moments of a movie that prefers to simmer at a steady half-smile. She futzes around with some tarot cards before cutting to the chase: “Get over all your shit, because it is later than you think.”
While it’s more than a bit convenient that a weekend in wine country manages to address everyone’s respective panics, the movie compensates for its more forced obligations with some of the seemingly improvised scenes along the way. A slap-happy conversation about new celebrities lands with a sharpness that much of the film is missing, and the flirtation it leads to between Val and a young waitress named Jade (“PEN15” star Maya Erskine) pays off in an unexpected way that manages to satisfy a major character arc through visual comedy (Poehler keeps things pretty simple behind the camera, but the sitcom anarchy of the last 20 minutes suggests that she’s got a better eye for this stuff than she lets on here).
Beyond that, most of “Wine Country” plays out exactly as you might expect — it’s more about learning to enjoy a familiar vintage than seeking out some bold new flavor. One woman throws out her back, another has a peculiar fling with the cook who comes with the house (Jason Schwartzman, bringing just the right kind of sweet and stupid male energy). Abby sleeps with a CPAP machine. There’s nothing wrong with another mirthful look at mortality and all the nonsense that comes along with it, especially not one that leans so hard into the ways in which that experience differs for women.
If age is just a number, you only need single digits to count the recent American comedies that allow women to go a little “Sideways,” or even the full “Wild Hogs.” And the geriatric stuff doesn’t count; there’s a lot of life to be laughed at between the years of “Baby Mama” and “Book Club.” “Wine Country” doesn’t leave much of an aftertaste, and it obviously won’t make the same kind of dent in the culture that Poehler and Fey did previously with the likes of “Parks & Rec” and “30 Rock,” but this fizzy movie finds a smooth way of expressing how much easier life is to enjoy if you don’t let yourself get in the way.
Netflix will release “Wine Country” in select theaters on Wednesday, May 8 and on its streaming platform on Friday, May 10.
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