A genre that really doesn’t exist in Hollywood anymore is the gonzo comedy. Sort of a go-for-broke approach, the gonzo comedy exists as a series of loosely-connected ideas where the filmmakers lean so far into the stupidity of the idea, often with a loose sense of “filmmaking” involved (i.e. intentionally bad edits or bad acting) that the film goes full circle back to brilliance. Examples of such films, with varying effectiveness, include There’s Something About Mary, Austin Powers, Joe vs. the Volcano, and Step Brothers. Barb and Star Go To Vista del Mar, the follow-up film for Bridesmaids writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo, is the most recent example of gonzo comedy. And what the film lacks in the subtle brilliance of Bridesmaids’ storytelling, it makes up for in epically game performances and silly bits played out to extreme conclusions.
Barb (Mumulo) and Star (Wiig) are two goodhearted Midwestern gals whose friendship is the talk of the town. The duo has lived in Nebraska their entire lives and never left, even in the face of divorce, death, and the shuttering of their place of employment. However, after hearing about a magical trip to Vista del Mar, Florida from a friend of theirs, the two best friends decide that it’s now or never to take the trip of a lifetime. And soon these best friends find themselves in a magical world of gorgeous people, luscious beaches, passionate romance, and maybe, just maybe, even an international scandal involving a supervillain’s plot to massacre an entire town. Wait, what?
What I appreciate most about Barb and Star is its sheer technical dedication. There is so much attention to detail to this film, from top to bottom. Wiig and Mumolo clearly know how to stage jokes, and they demonstrate that talent in each and every frame. Whether it’s the weirdly gorgeous colors of the Vista del Mar resort, or the sharp editing in scenes as varied as random quick cuts, visual asides to the women of The Talking Club (a great premise in and of itself), or the simple joy of a young boy delivering newspapers while lip-syncing to Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty” while riding a bike. Meanwhile, Wiig and Mumolo – perfectly embodying lovably chatty Midwestern women – deliver their lines so fluidly it’s often hard to differentiate between scripted dialogue and the improvised.
I’d imagine there’d be a good deal of improvisation on the set, and yet the dialogue in, say, the scene where they create a full backstory for an imaginary woman named Trish who dies and becomes a water spirit, is so detailed, I can’t imagine anyone coming up with that in the heat of the moment. Is it true some of the bits go on a wee bit too long? Of course. As a Midwesterner, there’s only so much Midwest I can take before it becomes grating. But any time the bit goes a beat too long, a character delivers a killer line, a background character does something that will take your breath away with laughter, or there will be something as adorably hilarious as matching beds labelled “Barb and Star.” This is a pure film, with pure laughs, through and through.
However, just when you think you have a handle on the film – “Oh, it’s just a silly string of weird characters!” – the film takes a right hand turn for the silly. And I mean a hard right turn. I can’t imagine how the first critics responded to this film (other than sheer delight). I at least had the vague warning that something weird happens. They went in expecting another smart, intelligent, Oscar-worthy comedy about friendship. As intelligent as this film is, it is…definitely not any of those previously mentioned things. This is one of the goofiest films I’ve seen in a long time. Within the first three minutes, we take a sharp turn from warmhearted realistic sing-along to science-fiction spy mission with a goofy villain possessing an outrageously excessive origin story. I’m talking killer mosquitos, music-playing mice, and handsome henchmen who desperately want to be an “official couple.” And somehow, the supervillain subplot is the least ridiculous thing about it. Mumulo and Wiig go for broke delivering comedic scenario after comedic scenario, embracing the motto “Go big or go home” at every turn.
There are three big musical numbers, including a “Welcome To Florida” song and the best damn musical sequence you’ll see all year (better step up your game, In The Heights and West Side Story). There’s a ridiculously strong alcoholic beverage that leads into a Jimmy Buffett needle drop (possibly the best Jimmy Buffett needle drop of all time). Characters are constantly having sex, and yet we only see them nose-kiss. And I haven’t even mentioned the sea spirits, Tommy Bahama, or the talking crab named Morgan Freemond (not to be confused with his vocal doppelgänger). My only complaint in the entire endeavor is the sound mixing – the lyrics and joke density are so strong, and yet you struggle to hear them due to improper mixing. What a shame.
To quote a popular Film Twitter meme, every performer in Barb and Star understood the assignment. Wiig and Mumolo clearly love this material and these characters, and it shines through in every single moment. The duo delivers every punchline perfectly, as the actresses live in these roles, and they are having just as much fun as we do watching them. Wiig also pulls double duty as the villainous Sharon Fisherman, and if you’ve ever seen Wiig hamming it up on Saturday Night Live, you’ll love her work here (she has one of the funniest monologues you’ll hear all year. Nearly every actor is at the top of their game and playing their roles to perfection, whether it’s Phyllis Smith, Rose Abdoo, and a hilariously vindictive Vanessa Bayer as Barb and Star’s Midwest friends, Damon Wayans Jr. as a bumbling spy, Michael Hitchcock as the hotel manager, or even cameos from Andy Garcia and Wendi McLendon-Covey. And then…there’s Jamie Dornan. After having previously called Dornan a failed actor for his stilted, disinterested performances in the Fifty Shades series, I need to make something crystal clear: Jamie Dornan is f*cking fantastic in this film. While he never steals attention away from the stars, Dornan goes for it in every frame, whether he needs to play a sexy-suave spy, a simping man-child who longs to be an “official couple” with someone, or giving a hilariously physical musical performance that should be studied in film classes for all eternity. I adore this goofy turn, and it’s one of the best comedic performances in a decade.
Barb and Star is a comedy on a different level. It strips out layers and plots and logic to just tell a silly story. It’s a 100-minute version of that final sketch of the night on Saturday Night Live. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, sure. But after a recent trend of disappointing studio comedies and a recent trend towards the comedy-drama, I’ve come to appreciate the dumb comedy all the more. Things like Eurovision and Blockers are now go-to comfort food, whether in quarantine or not. And as the purest form of dumb, silly comedy, Barb and Star scratches an itch that’s needed tending to for quite some time.
Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar can currently be rented or purchased On Demand from most streaming providers