I would really like to be fancy and compare Wine Country to a Chardonnay but sadly, I have never paid enough attention during winery tours to say anything intelligent about vintage. Much like the characters of Amy Poehler’s directorial debut, which hits Netflix 10th May, I was busy clinking glasses with my friends, sampling lots of wine, and getting day drunk in a chic and therefore socially acceptable setting.
All in all, Wine Country is pretty much what you would imagine a trip to Napa Valley involving SNL alums Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, and Tina Fey would look like. There’s fabulous dinner conversation, very specific playlists (requirements include “nothing after ‘Hey Ya,’” and songs that might earn you a DUI ) a personalised dildo gifting ceremony, drunken hot tub confessions, and a near-death encounter with a snake — or a twig, but who can really know for sure? It’s fun, and lightly mineral, with just enough depth and real-life drama to firmly anchor these friendships in earthy life experience. (Yes, those are wine jokes.)
A film about a group of friends reconnecting later in life only to air their grievances and end up closer together isn’t exactly a new concept. It’s one that’s been traditionally male-focused (The Hangover franchise and Tag being recent examples), even as films like Bridesmaids and Girls Trip have started to shift expectations. But Wine Country is a charming addition to the genre, mostly because of the way art imitates life. There’s a natural chemistry between these women that makes these relationships crackle. You believe they’ve been friends for two decades, because, well, they mostly have been. And who wouldn’t want to be invited into the inner circle for a tight 90 minutes?
The film opens with a group phone call introducing us to our core six: Poehler plays Abby, a type A hyper-planner who decides therapist Rebecca’s (Dratch) 50th birthday is the perfect excuse to bring the gang back together for a trip down memory lane. There’s Naomi (Rudolph), a mother of four who rocks a jumpsuit like no other; Jenny (Emily Spivey, who co-wrote the film), the flakey whiner of the group who gives 84 excuses why she shouldn’t be somewhere even as she reluctantly attends; Catherine (Ana Gasteyer), a successful workaholic mini-pizza entrepreneur; and Val (Paula Pell), a Portland-based vintage jewellery store owner with brand-new knee-transplants who’s looking for love.
Rounding out the cast are Fey as Tammy, the owner of their Napa Valley rental property who drops in unexpectedly with doomsday predictions about the perils of long-term friendship; Jason Shwartzmann as Devon, the driver/personal paella-maker/amateur wine country historian who “comes with the house;” Maya Erskine as Jade, a waitress and amateur artist with a Fran Drescher fetish; and Cherry Jones as Miss Sunshine, a downcast and surly tarot card reader who predicts that this weekend may not be all wine and games.
And indeed, simmering under all that Cabernet Sauvignon is a lot of pent-up anger, resentment, and fear — at Abby, who’s so concerned about planning everybody else’s fun that she’s not having any; at Rebecca, who’s been in a bad marriage for years and can’t see it; at Naomi, who’s drinking to stave off having to deal with a potential medical issue; at Jenny, who’s constantly negative; and at Catherine, the most financially secure of them all, and the most insecure. Douse all that with enough wine, and it’s bound to catch fire.
Poehler’s directorial touch deftly balances out the drama, layering mega-Nancy Meyers lifestyle porn vibes with a script by Spivey and Liz Cackowski that drops one joke after the other. Every blowout is deflated with a well-placed barb, which keeps the tone fairly light, even in the face of more serious matters. And though everyone gives solid comedic performances, Rudolph is the real stand-out here, partly because her arc gives her the most to work with. Her displays of manic energy are intercut with bouts of thoughtful contemplation that tug at the heartstrings just enough to raise the stakes on this otherwise frivolous weekend.
Though Wine Country takes gleeful pleasure in skewering the bougie attitudes of wine connoisseurs, the lush, saturated vistas — not to mention the ratio of twinkly-lights to patio — still telegraph a celebration of that upper-middle-class lifestyle. These women can poke fun because they’re in the club: mostly well-off and, with the exception of Naomi, white. And that doesn’t feel like too much of a problem, until Wine Country seeks to take the moral high ground with a bit about eye-rolling at millennials for being overly politically correct that feels straight out of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Ultimately though, the movie is as fun as the trailer makes it out to be. It’s well-trod ground, but still fertile for stories about love, life, and sisterhood. Grab a glass of wine, gather your girlfriends, and escape together.