The wine mom aesthetic is running strong through Hollywood. Originating anywhere from “The New Adventures of Old Christine” to “Inside Amy Schumer” or even Cersei from “Game of Thrones,” there’s a well-worn trend of showing that … women like drinking, too! “Wine Country” rests strongly on this conceit as its group of friends take to Napa for a weekend of drinking and hashing out decades of repressed angst. Glass after glass is poured, but in a wine cellar’s worth of bad jokes and poor timing, the film never achieves a satisfying buzz.
Like a sommelier picking out a perfectly complementary pour, this film at the outset is an ideal pairing between cast members and a silly, vacation-based setup. Director Amy Poehler assembled a seemingly winning team, but somehow this group just isn’t the right fit — even with sitcom and big-budget comedy hitters. The six central actresses clearly have chemistry, but the film on a whole is lackluster.
“Wine Country” ultimately eschews the rules of a successful ensemble comedy, leaving group dynamics unclear and underdeveloped. The setup is simple: Having not spent any time together in a while, the group reunites for a Significant Event — the 50th birthday of one of the group members. But rather than give any of the characters a clear reason to be there, the film instead presents the six-party group as a one-note assemblage of trope-ish figures. Their interpersonal dynamics are never made clear, nor are the reasons why the women became friends in the first place, much less why they have stayed in touch for three decades.
Lost in the mix of these mismatched personalities and murky dynamics, each character ends up being a shadow of a fully realized person. Amy Poehler’s Abby is the “organized one secretly falling apart,” but we don’t understand why she is like this or what her quirks might mean. She just really, really likes to plan. Rachel Dratch’s Rebecca is the reason the women are gathering, but her personality has little depth beyond that she’s a therapist — and, by proxy, “the one who takes care of others but can’t take care of herself.” It’s also unclear why Emily Spivey’s character Jenny even made it into the equation, seeing as her entire personality is “the one who doesn’t want to be there.”
Paula Pell, the longtime “Saturday Night Live” writer and writer for comedy hits including “30 Rock,” “This is 40” and “Bridesmaids,” is given a rare chunk of screen time in the film, and at least hits some of the jokes home. Pell’s Val (the “wild and crazy one”) borders on caricature, but in a way that actually gets some laughs. Val is also essentially the only one in the group to go through an actual character arc, while she has a brief fling with a younger woman. She alone has some sort of development, weighing the implications of her romantic decisions in order to make a better choice for herself by the end of the film.
As the women make their way through the hills of Napa, storylines and motivations come in and out of the plot as quickly as the glasses of chardonnay are poured. There are halfhearted references to when the women met while working at a Chicago pizzeria, one-offs about their significant others and other blips of character building. But this doesn’t amount to a full picture of the group, and instead just adds up into a bunch of possible details that don’t even matter. Other tangential characters float in and out of the six-some’s escapades but remain similarly one-dimensional. Tina Fey makes occasional appearances as Tammy, the Napa property owner, whose only trait is “she’s weird.”
Also hindering the film’s comedic abilities is the fact that the timing is often completely off. Pointless scenes go on for minutes, leaving you wondering why they were even included (see: the minutes-too-long tour of the Napa house where the group stays). There are three to six too many dance montage scenes, and there are multiple occasions when a beat after a joke will get left hanging in the air for way too long. There’s a sense that some of these scenes were conceived as if they were sketches, and these pauses are waiting for an applause that never comes. Surprisingly, the best jokes in the film are the ones about wine.
By the end of the glass, “Wine Country” is largely unfulfilling, a promising premise that fails to deliver. The six women at the center of this film are undeniably skilled comedic actresses, but there’s too much missing in their group dynamic to make for an interesting film.