Poor Jamie Dornan. All those years playing the hideous serial killer in the determinedly depressing TV show The Fall; another gig as the frankly ludicrous sadist Christian Grey in the 50 Shades franchise; marooned in the Irish countryside with a wonky accent in Wild Mountain Thyme. And all along, if he is now to be believed, he just wanted to be a goofball. He was simply waiting for the writer-actor-comedians Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo – who most famously collaborated on the script of Bridesmaids a decade ago – to come up with the right part.
Much of life is currently surreal, so you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take watching Dornan cavort on a Florida beach while ripping his shirt off to a cheesy power ballad; for scrunching up your eyes as he whimpers plaintively to a commitment-phobic super-villain; for wondering if you might be mistaken as he courts a couple of middle-aged Nebraskan ladies in culottes. But such is the magic of Wiig and Mumolo’s utterly crackers comedy Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar that you’ll end up believing – as Dornan has been telling everyone in interviews for the film – that he’s a natural-born clown.
Barb and Star is not a razor-sharp satire, nor an archly suggestive comedy of manners, nor a carnival of wit and wisdom. It is not an austere piece of art that will spark passionately held opinions on social media, or earnest long reads. It is not a likely subject for Cahiers du Cinéma. It is a full-throated piece of nonsense that, if the reaction of early viewers is anything to go by, is exactly what we need as we traverse the current vale of tears. Super-saturated in neons and pastels, garlanded with inflatable pool toys and cocktail umbrellas and drenched in gentle lewdness (there’s a song called I Love Boobies that, apparently, the team submitted for an Academy Award), it is the kind of thing to watch when you’ve rinsed all platforms for content in the mould of Sausage Party, Horrible Bosses, Ted 1 and 2, This is Spinal Tap, Ali G Indahouse and Anchorman. It is probably not the kind of thing to watch if you’ve spent months counting down to the release of Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head.
Wiig and Mumolo have been writing it, off and on, for years, developing their characters – two women from the midwest, one widowed and abandoned, both made redundant from a furniture shop. They’re the kind of friends who might jack it all in for their dream holiday and find themselves fighting a sinister baddie (also played by Wiig) intent on wiping out a beach resort with a swarm of genetically modified mosquitoes. And who might, while there, bewitch Dornan, get labial piercings, run across a weird mystic played by Andy García and clean out the giftshop of quaint shell necklaces and charm bracelets that they will later use to free themselves from the obligatory tying-up scene. At what point, one wonders, did they come up with the idea of someone pretending to be Morgan Freeman voicing a crab called Morgan Freemond, and what were they smoking when they did?
You can’t watch movies like this every day of your life; sooner or later you will want a wander in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis or a touch of Truffaut or the bracing slap of a Lars von Trier. Or at least I suppose this to be the case. But I recently got on the phone to a friend who had just watched Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, about which undeniable masterpiece the only thing I could remember is that someone dreams about a coffin falling off a cart, and I would merely observe that to everything its season. Perhaps Barb and Star are to the pandemic what a film such as Went the Day Well? was to the second world war, with the mosquitoes standing in for the Nazi invaders menacing a tiny English village; unabashed propaganda for the idea that we can overcome any threat if we all pull together.
I’d rather read it, though, as a paean to the power of middle-aged women, who will even turn the universally unflattering culotte to their advantage in a pinch. Who rarely stop imagining a better life, one in which they might be called Trish and ride on a bright yellow banana boat and give free rein to their dormant libidos. Who will channel our desires to be on holiday in classy hotels with bright blue drinks and fluffy towels that we haven’t laundered ourselves. And who might, indeed, sit down with their mate and come up with a piece of ridiculousness that can be counted on not to feature coffin carts.