Lifelong friends on the cusp of 50 hit Napa Valley for a birthday party/reunion in Wine Country, a comedy about six women who keep long-term bonds alive by tramping out the vintage where the sour grapes are stored.
Amy Poehler directs and stars — she’s Abby, the hyper-organizer who plans the event, books the vineyard estate (owned by a rusticated Tina Fey), and creates the photo-sharing page and also an itinerary that accounts for every minute — tours, tastings, horseback riding, group photos with drone shot, etc.
It’s immediately evident that Abby has conceived the three-day holiday to suit her own need to control rather than meet the wishes of the birthday girl (Rachel Dratch), whose main gift from the other women is their forbearance — they won’t say aloud how much they hate her no-good husband, no matter how much cabernet they consume.
The other friends include a woman (Maya Rudolph) relieved to be away from her family, a woman (Emily Spivey) who secretly misses hers, a distracted businesswoman (Ana Gasteyer), and a gallery owner (Paula Pell) whose crush on a young waitress has same-sex echoes of Sideways.
The movie arrives at its reunion vibe honestly – there’s a lot of former Saturday Night Live talent here, and the idea grew from a real-life Napa retreat that Dratch hosted for her buddies a few years ago. The script is by SNL vets Liz Cackowski and Spivey, and there is often a sketch-comedy quality to the episodic narrative. Mostly that’s to the good — the best bits have the women riffing on the pomposity of Napa customs. Poehler and Dratch destroy a stuck-up sommelier and the entire gang has fun with the hippie hostess of a solar-powered organic vineyard who refers to the dregs of sediment in the organic wine as “wine diamonds.”
One suspects, however, that the cast in real life has an intimacy and rapport missing from the women as they appear on screen (the backstory has them waitressing at the same pizzeria decades earlier). There is a schematic quality to the characters and character dynamics that gets in the way of genuine emotion. Abby, for instance, is revealed to be the kind of control freak whose need for order conceals (barely) the chaos that’s taken over her home life. Most of the conflicts are facile, and so are the resolutions.
The movie is at its best when the women are focused on the common enemy: getting older. The women wonder whether recreational drugs might interfere with the prescribed pharmaceuticals they are already taking – Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Farxiga, and on and on and on. Abby sleeps with a C-PAP machine. Pell’s character is trying out new knees.
Their youth has abandoned them, and the world they experienced and knew has become kitschy fodder for millennials — one interesting scene has them attending an art installation that riffs pretentiously and uncomprehendingly on 1980s sitcoms.
The women rebel. They’re starting to feel and fear their own mortality, but defending vintage comedy is a hill they’ll die on.
Wine Country. Directed by Amy Poehler. With Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Rachel Dratch. Distributed by Netflix.
Running time: 2 hours, 23 mins.
Parent’s guide: R (language, drug use)