The staggering success of 2011’s Bridesmaids – almost $300m globally, two Oscar nominations, a belated industry realisation that uh yeah women can do mass market comedies too – had an unlikely effect on its breakout star, and co-writer, Kristen Wiig. While Saturday Night Live viewers already cherished her as the show’s hit-after-hit MVP, global audiences were now too let in on the joke and most of us waited impatiently to see what she would do next, perhaps expecting more of the same. But unlike the more obvious scene-stealer of the film, Melissa McCarthy, Wiig chose not to pursue a career headlining studio comedies, sticking mostly to the outskirts, choosing Sundance over Hollywood (she repeatedly turned down the offer to do a Bridesmaids sequel). There were muted successes (The Skeleton Twins, The Diary of a Teenage Girl) but more often disappointments (Welcome to Me, Girl Most Likely, Hateship Loveship, Revenge for Jolly) and her brief head-around-the-door appearances in bigger movies (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Zoolander 2, Ghostbusters, Anchorman 2, Downsizing, Wonder Woman 1984) didn’t quite scratch the itch that had now been niggling Bridesmaids, and SNL, fans for almost a decade.
What’s most frustrating about the misuse of an actor as talented as Wiig is that we’re also aware of her talent as a writer, knowing all too well that she’s often reciting subpar dialogue that she could have improved upon herself. It’s rather like watching other funny women such as Tina Fey, Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler, hemmed in by scripts that aren’t as sharp as they are, like a Michelin star chef being forced to make a three-course meal in a microwave. It all makes the delayed arrival of Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar that much more exciting, a comedy reuniting Wiig with her Bridesmaids co-writer and co-star Annie Mumolo on both sides of the screen, a rare chance to see her take charge of her own comedic presence.
While Bridesmaids mined laughter but also found surprising pathos from an uncomfortably well-observed character study, it’s made glaringly clear from the outset that Barb and Star is not going to be delving quite as deep. It’s a light-hearted, often joyfully demented, lark, an assemblage of scenes rather than a cohesive movie, best appreciated when stoned or drunk or both, to be enjoyed in the moment and then forgotten about directly after. There’s something to be admired about its ambitious brashness, Wiig and Mumolo thrusting two entirely new characters at us, ready for merchandising, in a way that resembles an earlier era, like Barb and Star arrived pre-packaged from a 90s SNL skit. We just don’t tend to see comedies like this as much now, especially anchored by women in their late 40s, and so there’s a certain comfy nostalgia in its direct “you’re gonna love these two” intentions.
Barb and Star are best friends, living and working together in a small midwestern town, almost hard to tell apart, with similar curler-prepped hair and bright culottes. When they both get fired, they decide to take a trip to Florida, to create new memories rather than living off the faint fumes of the ones they made years ago. But their trip coincides with an evil plan concocted by a supervillain (also played by Wiig), who wants to destroy the community of Vista Del Mar with help from her lovesick henchman Edgar (Jamie Dornan, more comfortable with this brand of comedy than whatever the hell that was in last year’s regrettable Wild Mountain Thyme) and a scourge of genetically modified mosquitoes.
It’s a film obviously acutely aware of its own deranged silliness, unashamedly transplanting kids movie plotting to a film aimed at adults, and without the shuttering of cinemas, it would have made a fun, if modest, splash last summer. It’s not quite as well-suited to a cold February evening, sans energetic audience, its flaws easier to spot, the biggest of which is that Barb and Star aren’t quite as hysterically funny as Wiig and Mumolo seem to think they are. Perhaps they would have been if their antics were condensed into irregular SNL skits but there’s barely enough here for the first act, let alone an almost two-hour movie.
Wiig and Mumolo’s off-screen friendship glues a great deal of this together, an ease between the pair that sells it tot a certain extent (Wiig doing nothing is also funnier than most people doing something) but there’s not enough specificity to distinguish each character and too often they recall watered-down versions of previous Wiig creations (from Target Lady to Surprise Party Sue). There are amusing moments in place of bigger laughs and sadly, the hit-to-miss ratio is awfully skewed to the latter, like it was rustled up with speed rather than crafted with much care. If Wiig and Mumolo are going to lean into outsized comedy rather than anything resembling reality then one would expect the jokes to be a great deal funnier.
It’s a breeze of a watch and with the bar for studio comedy being so very low right now, it’s at least mildly inventive and likably goofy, enough to warrant a cautious recommendation (premium rental price: no, next time you’re on a plane: sure). But it feels like more fun is being had on set than being had by us, a long-time-coming reunion that still feels a little rushed. If Bridesmaids was a wedding you’ll never forget then Barb and Star is a holiday you’ll barely remember.