Two Peas In a Pod
Bard and Star Go To Vista Del Mar is streaming on Prime
“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” You know that line, even if you’ve never seen the classic comedy This is Spinal Tap. There’s real truth in that line, particularly considering the dire state of American comedy movies.
A few decades back, comedy was king at the box office. It felt for a while there that the purpose of Saturday Night Live was to groom cast members for future careers as massive movie stars. You had folks like Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey, and Will Ferrell appearing in movies that were monster hits. Whether or not the movies were a good fit? That’s another story.
As studios focused more on international audiences, they discovered something blindingly obvious. It turns out that people in different countries have very different ideas of what is funny. Studio heads soon found that, while a person in Indonesia can enjoy The Avengers as much as a person from Houston, four-quadrant American comedies often lost money overseas. So, as people with business school degrees are trained to do, studios focused on what’s profitable — superhero movies, action, and horror.
It’s a good news/bad news scenario. The bad news being that an awful lot of gifted comedic filmmakers have less of a shot of having a cinematic hit, as studios are less inclined to invest in their projects. The good news is that an awful lot of gifted comedic filmmakers can now fly under the radar and, instead of trying to please everyone, can focus on making a gut-bustingly hilarious movie. That brings us to Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, a film of staggering silliness that deserves a far higher profile.
Soft Rock, Nebraska is a town that’s clean. Well-lit. Safe. That’s just how Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig) like it. They’ve been best friends since the beginning of time, so much so that after their marriages ended, they did the sensible thing and a) moved in together and b) got a job together at a furniture store where they work exceptionally hard at not selling furniture.
Their pleasant lives are upended, and when that happens, Star has an idea. They’ll go on vacation! To the fabled Vista Del Mar, a resort that’s the jewel of Florida’s west coast! Barb has her doubts. After all, for someone who’s spent her entire life in Nebraska, the idea of dealing with ocean currents, of all things, positively fills her with dread.
She gets over it, and before you know it, Barb and Star are winging their way to Vista Del Mar. It’s an idyllic oasis of sun, turquoise waters, pastels, and a full dance number when they check-in. Better yet is Edgar Paget (Jamie Dornan), a man so breathtakingly attractive that he can make awful Hawaiian shirts look good.
What Barb and Star don’t know is that Edgar is besotted with the villainous Sharon Gordon Fisherman (additionally Kristen Wiig), a woman with a dastardly plan. Within her sleek underground lair, she plots to destroy Vista Del Mar with a swarm of genetically modified mosquitoes. Can Barb and Star stop her attack? Can they reconcile their friendship with their attraction to Edgar? Will they realize their dream of riding on a banana boat together?
Not every comedy needs to grin through the hell of totalitarianism like The Death of Stalin. Not every comedy needs to mercilessly clown on late-stage capitalism like Sorry To Bother You. Sometimes a funny thing can and should be funny simply for the sake of being funny. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is unconcerned with the pandemic, political infighting or the uncertainties of life in the 21st century, and that’s exactly as it should be.
In too many studio comedies, there comes a point where you can almost feel the director pumping the brakes on the gags, and taking a few moments where the protagonist recommits to their kid/spouse/dog/whatever. It’s a moment of mawkish sentimentality that nobody likes. Here, director Josh Greenbaum keeps the film energetic, bouncy, and totally unconnected to reality. There’s an avalanche of sight gags, verbal gaffes, and out of nowhere non-sequiturs. B&SGTVDM is one of those movies where you’ll need to see it a few times to catch all the gags. The film bursts with color, and Greenbaum has made a movie that’s as much a pleasure to look at as it is to laugh at it.
Writing a screenplay is hard. Writing one that’s nominated for an Academy Award is far harder. Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo climbed those literary mountains with their script for Bridesmaids. When that happens, many Oscar winners decide to either coast on their laurels or pursue “serious” projects. Luckily, Wiig and Mumolo were laser-focused on writing something funny, yet never at the expense of their characters. As silly as things get, and they do get very silly, we always know what the various characters want and what’s standing in their way. It’s a well-crafted screenplay written with no small degree of skill, and we can feel that the ultimate objective is to get laughs.
Mumolo and Wiig first met at The Groundlings, the legendary Los Angeles improv troupe. Their performances here feel like the product of years of stage comedy and a comfortable partnership. Barb and Star often finish each other’s sentences. When they get flustered, they have a tendency to create a tornado of babble. However, Wiig and Mumolo aren’t playing the same character. There are subtle and distinct differences that allow their performances to veer off in unexpected directions. Just as good is Jamie Dornan, who’s best known as the possibly psychotic Christian Grey from 50 Shades of Grey. As Edgar, Dornan is joyfully berserk, and if I were his agent, I’d advise him to stick to comedy as much as possible. He has a gift for it. Damon Wayans Jr. pops up as a spy who’s terrible at his job, and his brief appearance packs a punch.
For a movie like Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar to function, it needs to be constructed with precision and care. There’s far more to it than plunking down a camera and allowing some half-assed improvising. With skill and a relentless dedication toward silliness, this film effortlessly rides the line between clever and stupid.