Before Wine Country shows you what kind of movie it is, it tells you what kind of movie it won’t be. Anything as dignity-robbing as a catfight between the six female friends spending a weekend in one house gets ruled out early on. (One character notes the sexism of the expectation that women can’t help but feud with one another.) And because the longtime pals have gathered to celebrate the fact that one of them (Rachel Dratch) is turning 50, harder drugs—like MDMA, which another of the women (Ana Gasteyer) brings—are off the table. (The naysayers don’t want to risk staying up all night, and they fret that molly won’t mix so well with the daily pills they’re already taking.)
It’s understandable why first-time feature director Amy Poehler, working with a script from former Saturday Night Live scribes Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski, would avoid such clichés, which make little sense for the middle-aged cast anyway. But Poehler et al. throw up roadblocks for themselves without bothering to pave new thruways. The comedy thus chugs along a narrow but pleasant road, with little room for surprising turns or new discoveries.
It’s a testament to the watery characterization of the central sextet that the two most memorable characters, almost by default, are the gruff proprietress of the rental house (Tina Fey), who predicts the pinot grigio will push the women toward each other’s throats, and the surly tarot card reader (Cherry Jones) who, for reasons that remain unclear, decides to freak out her customers with discouraging fortunes. (Does she not worry about the bad Yelp reviews?) Also starring Poehler, Spivey, Maya Rudolph, and Paula Pell, Wine Country makes it a point to steer clear of sharp fingernails and shattered glasses, but the writers seem unsure how else to create the necessary conflict for a story. Poehler’s Abby, an anemic version of Leslie Knope, irks the rest of the group with her overpacked itinerary. Gasteyer’s Catherine is too work-occupied for her friends’ tastes, Pell’s Val too horny, and Dratch’s Rebecca too blasé about having survived a half-century. These are the kind of problems you’d kill to have while getting day-drunk in Napa Valley, and none of it ever bubbles over. (If you told me that the shoot was Poehler’s excuse to bring her one-time SNL buds on a paid vacation, à la the scam pioneered by their former co-star Adam Sandler, I’d believe you.)
Wine Country does occasionally jolt out of its hazy stupor, particularly when it finds an unexpected satirical target. The film satisfyingly cuts down Napa’s tourism-oriented performative oenophilia, as well as its foodie culture, embodied by a chef/fisherman/fuckboy played by Jason Schwartzman. An extended scene in a contemporary gallery where Val pursues a young painter (Maya Erskine) lampoons the kind of bad art on sale in tourist towns. A collective rant, especially by the group of mostly white, presumably affluent women, against a racially and sexually diverse array of millennials plays on the cast’s chief strengths, but it’s a whine that has long since turned to vinegar, and it further muddles how we’re supposed to think of these women, who are neither particularly relatable nor hopelessly out of touch.
It’s not insignificant, of course, that Wine Country stars a group of women in their late 40s and early 50s. Nor is it that they more or less look like their age. The film’s most feel-good element might be that the cast gets to don the kind of looser clothes many older women adopt. I especially adored the scene in which a heavier character, very possibly drunk, sat in a hot tub wearing a long-sleeve, tie-dyed shirt that hid her body while chatting with a friend late into the night. Wine Country doesn’t have a whole lot to say about what being middle-age feels like, but in its presentation of relatively normal-looking women (albeit with professional styling and thick, expensively dyed manes), it asserts with a sneaking resonance that it’s alright for women to age.
If only it displayed a similar confidence about women displaying personalities. We get a thrilling glimpse of swinging breasts early in the film and a restaurant scene with some brief food porn, including skewers of lavender-flavored “popped corn” (aka popcorn), is met with the swift complaint, “That’s not enough.” But such bursts of mischief quickly cede to rote story development—a waste of talent that makes Wine Country even more forgettable than its jokes. Maybe this dream team would be better showcased by a Tea With the Dames situation, in which they were allowed to toss out the script and booze it up as their own funny selves. Anyone else up for Chardonnay With the Comedians?