Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar: The Movie We Need Right Now
I have to admit, I was apprehensive about Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. The writing (and starring) team of Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo had earned the benefit of the doubt after Bridesmaids, but the COVID-related delays and eventual decision to dump the film onto VOD in February instead of going ahead with a summer release should theatres be opened, combined with the somewhat mysterious marketing, hadn’t left me with high hopes. I shouldn’t have worried — Barb and Star turns out to be a bright spot in the early days of 2021, an uproariously funny comedy that has the charm of Bridesmaids while leaning into the rapid-fire absurdity that characterizes much of the best of the Saturday Night Live-adjacent comedies of past 20 years.
If there’s one thing I did not expect, it’s that Barb and Star would take its narrative framework from the likes of Zoolander. Yes, the fish-out-of-water aspect is the hook, as Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig), two nice middle-aged midwesterners, decide to step out of their comfort zone and treat themselves to a sunny Floridian vacation. But the action is propelled forward by a Mad Libs B-plot regarding evil mastermind Sharon Gordon Fisherman (Wiig again, plastered in white makeup), Vista Del Mar’s annual seafood festival, and a remote controlled swarm of killer mosquitos. It’s the kind of action-comedy mashup we’ve seen not infrequently, and a style that runs the risk of having both aspects fall flat, but Wiig and Mumolo’s script — helmed confidently by director Josh Greenbaum — impressively threads the needle, foregrounding the comedy at all times and never taking themselves too seriously.
This balance is clearly the right one: Wiig and Mumolo clearly subscribe to the joke density school of comedy favored by fellow SNL and/or Groundlings alumni Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, and The Lonely Island boys, and their Barb and Star are the perfect mouthpieces for plenty of non-sequiturs and collaborative back and forth joke construction. But as good as our two leads are as they utilize the rhythms of their exaggerated midwestern accents to wonderful effect, the surprise MVP of the project is their co-star Jamie Dornan.
As Edgar, Dornan leans into puppy-dog charm as he’s constantly manipulated by the villain he loves, despite her withholding from him the one thing that will make him happy: the opportunity to finally be, in his words, part of an “official couple.” I’m sure this doesn’t translate on paper, but let me tell you that I cackled like a madman every single time Dornan utters that phrase during the course of the film — something that happens very frequently. I don’t think Dornan has quite been able to shake audience perception of him as the lead in the Fifty Shades trilogy (though he’s done solid work outside of that, including in last year’s Synchronic), but I certainly didn’t realize he had these kind of comedy chops; he steals the show with his hilariously conflicted feelings and at least one extended showcase of a sequence that had me nearly falling out of my seat in shock.
Though Barb and Star comes perilously close to overstaying its welcome at a robust 106 minutes, it smartly never lets up in its pursuit of laughs — even when it takes the time to dig into more commonly tread emotional ground — and builds up goodwill so quickly that it’s almost impossible to complain about spending time with these women and the cast assembled around them. When all is said and done, this may have been the perfect moment for the film’s release: though I would love to see how this plays in a crowded theatre (my guess is very well), it’s the kind of comedy you don’t realize how much you need until you sit down and the laughs start flowing — and in the end, it’s hard to ask for too much more than that.