Whose idea was it to go to Napa to celebrate Rebecca’s 50th birthday? Because it wasn’t Rebecca’s. A psychoanalyst who’s been actively repressing many of her own issues, Rebecca (Rachel Dratch) is determined not to make a big deal about reaching the half-century mark, but five of her oldest friends — which is to say, dearest acquaintances of longest date — have insisted she celebrate. To mark the occasion, they’ve booked a girls’ trip to “Wine Country,” where copious amounts of alcohol accelerate the group’s naturally hilarious tendencies.
“Sideways” this isn’t, seeing as the women show an almost hostile disinterest in learning anything about wine (they spend more time talking about Molly, but never actually do it), and the movie never questions whether they might be drinking too much of the stuff — even when they all wind up in the hospital at the end. Still, as far as a directorial debut for “Saturday Night Live” alum Amy Poehler goes, “Wine Country” offers Netflix subscribers an excuse to stay in, uncork, and toast a comedian who’s taking the next step in her career.
The time is right for someone like Poehler to shine. “Wine Country” celebrates womanhood in all its complicated splendor, reuniting half a dozen friends who bonded as equals at a Chicago pizza joint many years earlier (a stand-in for “SNL,” where the actresses connected in real life). On-screen and off, they’ve stayed close ever since, watching in awe and mutual encouragement as each has gone her own way. For dramatic purposes, at least, time has also worked against them, and for all their accomplishments, each of these women has weaknesses she could stand to work on: secrets and insecurities that don’t necessarily mix well with alcohol.
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Poehler plays the control-freak organizer, Abby, who compensates for a recent job loss by bossing everyone else with her to-the-minute itinerary for the entire trip. Dratch’s Rebecca considers herself fairly easygoing by comparison, but maybe that’s because she refuses to confront what’s not going well in her life lately. (In any case, it’s a delight to see Dratch rewarded with a lead role, rather than a secret-weapon walk-on, as she’s more often deployed.)
As Naomi, Maya Rudolph reminds what a pleasure it is to see her improv skills unleashed, but is also saddled with the most frustrating backstory, involving an ominous medical diagnosis that she’s convinced could be terminal — an anxiety exacerbated by a tarot card reading from a local hippie (Cherry Jones). Ana Gasteyer represents the workaholic of the bunch, Catherine, who can’t be far from her cellphone for any length of time (although in 2019, that’s a problem with practically all humans on a group trip like this one). Still, the guilt she feels over her success, and the distraction it causes, spawns a chain reaction of recognizable neuroses.
Rounding out the cast are two incredibly funny women who are less familiar as actresses, having served as writers on “SNL” during Poehler’s time on the show. Emily Spivey started the same day as Poehler, and here keeps a relatively low profile as Jenny, who’s so convinced she’d rather be spending time with her husband at home that she hardly allows herself to enjoy the weekend. If Spivey plays it subtle, then Paula Pell might as well be her radioactively extroverted opposite as lesbian Val, whose recent knee surgery seems to have given her a boost of self-confidence.
Judging by a deluge of advance publicity (rare for a Netflix movie, but sure to help prevent this one from getting overlooked on the service when it launches May 10), the friends we see on-screen are equally close in real life, and the outing depicted in “Wine Country” was inspired by similar trips they’ve made together. That explains the second-nature chemistry that makes them so much fun to watch, even when the shenanigans — trespassing through vineyards or rolling down hills — leave one longing for the outrageousness of an all-female studio comedy like “Bridesmaids” or “Girls Trip.”
“Wine Country” just doesn’t have the same ambition, coming across as that laid-back kind of movie that must have been fun for all involved to make. Still, half a dozen characters may have been too many. At least, it proves overwhelming at times for DP Tom Magill, who seldom manages to frame all six women together — apart from the inevitable slo-mo shot of them striding shoulder-to-shoulder at the end. Judging by the brightly lit but uneven-looking result, Magill must have frequently been flummoxed by the weird blocking, which leaves characters lopped off at the edges of the frame, and whatever technology they’re using to soften the actresses’ features (a choice that seems to fly in the face of the movie’s otherwise positive embrace-your-age mentality).
The only person going out of her way to create a fresh character here is Poehler’s longtime collaborator Tina Fey, who plays the group’s rental-house host, someone with no filter and even less self-awareness, delivering as many laughs in her limited screen time as the others do combined. Sadly, the movie doesn’t end in outtakes, as such comedies so often do. In any case, that would surely spoil the illusion: that they’re only pretending to be drunk, when we’d just as soon watch a behind-the-scenes documentary that shows how these besties behave when they’ve had a few too many.