Barb and Star plays to Wiig’s most overindulgent and weirdo instincts, failing to strike the balance of her best comedic work.
The career path forged by Kristen Wiig is one of the stranger journeys to emerge out of Hollywood in recent years. After finding breakout success on Saturday Night Live, Wiig scored a massive blockbuster with 2011’s Bridesmaids, cementing her status as one of the eminent female comedic voices of the 21st century. Wiig took that newly-minted clout and proceeded to make a series of baffling indie features — Nasty Baby, Girl Most Likely, and Welcome to Me, among them — that suggested she was more interested in honing her craft and working with talented creative artists than in mere fame, fortune, etc. The problem with that strategy, then, was that most of those films sucked, and while she managed to sprinkle in some big-budget work — The Martian and Ghostbusters — her shine had started to fade. All of that to say, from the beginning, Wiig’s latest feature, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, had the look of a return to form. A broad comedic role in a film written by Wiig and her Bridesmaids co-scribe Annie Mumolo, the film seems custom-built to appeal to viewers longing for the idiosyncratic comedienne they knew and loved — just look at that wacky, rhyming title, folks. Yet, there’s a rub here: Bridesmaids worked, in no small part, because of Wiig’s partnership with director Paul Feig. He helped tone down her penchant for overindulgence and weirdo digressions, while, in turn, her inherent edge kept Feig’s love of schmaltz and broad humor from sinking the ship. Barb and Star instead has to rely on the guidance of documentary filmmaker Josh Greenbaum, making his fictional directorial debut, and in that small battle, Wiig’s sensibilities win with ease, Greenbaum seemingly waving the white flag by minute two.
A story of two frumpy, middle-aged women travelling to the titular Floridian locale to enjoy an adventure-filled getaway is plenty of ammunition when you have Wiig and Mumolo in the lead roles. Real-life best friends for decades, the duo’s comedic chemistry is easily felt, but the script demonstrates a profound lack of faith in their abilities, which is baffling given that they wrote it. Instead, viewers are treated to a succession of superfluous characters, scenes, and subplots that contribute nothing to the central narrative and, more importantly, are only occasionally humorous. Get this: the film features an entire competing storyline in which a maniacal woman with a rare skin condition (think Powder) plots revenge on the community of Vista Del Mar by unleashing thousands of flies whose stings are fatal. Wiig also plays the role of said villainess, modeled to resemble Cate Blanchett in Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, because Wiig loves a deep pull. Choices like this make clear that Wiig isn’t the least bit interested in pleasing viewers, but is instead happy to simply indulge whatever wacky conceit amuses her in the moment. One certainly has to respect that type of lunatic bravado, but’s obvious no one ever told Wiig, “No,” and it leads to an overstuffed film that works best when it simply focuses on the friendship of its lead characters. If you think a talking crab named Morgan Freedman is funny, then this is definitely going to be more your speed. Greenbaum’s direction is remarkably flat, working in a vein similar to Judd Apatow, which does a great disservice to a film that features elaborate musical numbers and frequent sequences of physical comedy, all of which thuddingly land. Hiring the somber Jamie Dornan as a potential love interest was also a huge mistake, as the man seems not to possess a single comedic bone in his body, resulting in a performance only amusing for its woodenness. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is ultimately a considerable letdown, but staying true to her post-Bridesmaids ways, at least no one can say Wiig didn’t succeed in making the film she set out to produce.