Movie Review - Wine Country (2019)

Amy Poehler is a Golden Globe-winning actress from the series Parks and Recreation (2009). She's also an Emmy-winning comedian for her work on Saturday Night Live. She worked on the sketch series from 2001 to 2008. She quickly became a breakout star and obviously made a lot of friends while there. While working on Parks and Recreation, she directed three episodes. She also directed other TV projects, but this film is her feature debut. It's a film that is comprised of all her female friends from Saturday Night Live. It's about a group of six women who gather at a summer house in the Napa Valley in California to celebrate one of the friends' birthday for the weekend.

The idea of a group of friends who gather at a house for a weekend to celebrate some event or memorialize something is an idea that has been the subject of several films. The most substantial was The Big Chill (1983). Since then, there have been several films made that could be considered remakes of that 1983 classic. This is particularly true for independent films because it's an easy idea to execute because it's a group of people all in one location. Nine years ago, there were three of this kind of film released all within a few months of each other. One was The Romantics (2010). The second was Not Since You (2010). The third was Grown Ups (2010).

The most successful was Grown Ups, which was written and produced by Adam Sandler, another alumni of Saturday Night Live. That film was comprised of all of Sandler's male friends from SNL. In many ways, this could be Poehler's answer to Sandler's hit film. Her version obviously isn't as masculine and it's also not as juvenile. It doesn't have as much sexual or any toilet humor. Poehler's film is way more mature and level-headed. However, there are similar themes and character traits that writers Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski share or possibly take from the Sandler film. Poehler's film though isn't as over-the-top a comedy.

Just as a point of fact, five years ago, there was another film made with this same premise that involved a cast member from Saturday Night Live. It was called Beside Still Waters (2014). The group of friends in that film wasn't mono-gendered in its focus. It involved both men and women as friends dealing with various issues. That isn't the case here. Poehler's film is all about women. We've had more of which lately, but this isn't like mainstream comedies like Bridesmaids (2011) or Girls Trip (2017), which are more over-the-top. Those films were designed to be bolder and louder. This film is instead more measured and quiet.

Poehler stars as Abby, one of six women who met in a pizza shop in Chicago and bonded. Now, she and the others are spread out, but one of them is having a birthday, so Abby is planning a weekend in Napa Valley at a rented house and a tour of the vineyards that dominate that area. She has prepared an itinerary that is very detailed and she is meticulous about keeping everyone on her schedule. She's very controlling in that regard, but it's under the guise of her wanting to make sure everyone has fun.

Rachel Dratch co-stars as Rebecca, the one who's celebrating her 50th birthday. It's because of her that everyone has gotten together. She's a therapist and talks like one constantly. She's married to a guy that her friends don't like, but they won't tell her that. Despite being a therapist, there are certain things about her life that she won't acknowledge like her growing back pains.

Ana Gasteyer also co-stars as Catherine, the workaholic who is trying to land a new TV job. The entire time she's in the Napa Valley, she's on her phone trying to get work done or make calls to see if she's got the TV job. This causes her often to break away from the group of friends to be on her phone. She's by herself a lot. She's distracted constantly.

Paula Pell plays Val, a plump, blonde lesbian who lives in Portland and runs a vintage store. She becomes interested in a younger woman and thinks about pursuing a relationship with this younger woman. She's very open and adventurous. Maya Rudolph plays Naomi, a stay-at-home mom who wants to be as open and adventurous. She does so for this trip, but she is so for a reason that she doesn't reveal to her friends. Emily Spivey also plays Jenny, a wife and mother too who's not as open and adventurous. She has anxieties about doing certain things.

As the women celebrate Rebecca's birthday and go on the Napa Valley tour, we see them talk about their friendships and interpersonal relationships, as well as their personal issues. Occasionally, the scenes of them on the tour are punctuated with really funny moments. The whole thing feels mostly muted and easygoing. The final twenty minutes do kick into a higher gear that is very entertaining and engaging on a narrative and character-level that works quite well.

Prior to that final twenty minutes, there are five really funny moments or sequences that really made me love this film. It begins with the opening sequence. It's a very good hook that made me want to keep watching the film, even in its slow sections. The opening sequence is a multi-person phone call between the six women that seems to unfold over several days. It's edited so well and so smoothly. It's a 4-minute sequence that demonstrates Poehler's deftness in putting together a good piece of comedy.

The other, really funny moments include a scene where all six women discuss taking drugs, specifically "Molly," a street drug aka Ecstasy or MDMA. Another is a scene where Rebecca and Naomi are walking through an organic orchard that they shouldn't. It feels like the two actresses are riffing. It seems as if Poehler just sets the camera up and lets them go, which shows the brilliance and chemistry of the two actresses. One other really funny moment involved an art show that pits the Generation X women against a group of Millennials in probably the most hilarious skewering of both groups I've seen. One last funny moment before the final twenty moments, which are their own comedy set-piece, is one involving Abby facing off with Devon, played by Jason Schwartzman, in what might be the most laugh-out-loud bit of silence I've ever seen.

Like Tamara Jenkins' Private Life (2018), this is another great piece of comedic filmmaking by a female director to pop up recently. It makes me hopeful to see more of it and it makes me hopeful to see more from Poehler who definitely proves herself in the director's chair.

Rated R for crude sexual content, language and some drug material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.

Available on Netflix.


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