Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is designed to be difficult to dislike — but if you’re not the type to back down from a challenge, it gets easier. The purposely messy, garish and disposable comedy from Bridesmaids writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who also star as the fortysomething Midwesterners of the title, is so determinedly low-stakes that to quibble with its candy-colored craving to be liked is to be a terrible killjoy. So, fine, bring it on: In the spirit of the film’s villain, who’s turned psychopathically cruel through unpopularity, we present this review, cackling mirthlessly while plotting the pointless mass-murder of innocent pleasures.
Barb (Mumolo, we think) and Star (Wiig, ditto) are lifelong best friends with the same shellacked, mumsy hairdo, whose decades of closeness are indicated by having nothing left to say to each other except excited observations about raccoons or the relative sexiness of the Pringles man vs Mr. Peanut. Barb is widowed. Star is divorced. They don’t just live together, they share a frilly bedroom; both work at “the hottest place in town,” a Jennifer Convertibles store. But when they’re let go on the same day and happen to run into a friend (Wendi McLendon-Covey) who’s glowing after a midlife-changing vacation to Florida, the duo starts to consider traveling out of the town they’ve never left. And once they’re kicked out of “Talking Club” — one the film’s few genuinely inspired creations, a ladies’ get-together hosted by the psychotically rule-enforcing Debbie (a very funny Vanessa Bayer) — there’s really nothing for them to stay for.
After Star calms Barb’s fears of jail (and poison, and diarrhea and riptides), they set off. Little do they know that Vista Del Mar, which is rife with celeb cameos — some of which would be spoilers, others of which are Andy Garcia — has that very week been targeted by a Dr Evil-style supervillainness (also Wiig, in a different, um, hairpiece). She plans to avenge her childhood humiliation by sending her lovelorn lackey Edgar (Jamie Dornan) down there to release a cloud of lethal super-mosquitoes. Having the not-exactly-hideous henchman pining for “official couple” status with this supremely uninterested (older!) megalomaniac female is amusing, and Dornan is game in the kind of hunky-himbo role pioneered by Hemsworth, C., in the recent Ghostbusters reboot. But though there’s potential comedic mileage there, especially with Wiig’s double-role stunt, it doesn’t ever pay off, except to note that it’s the second time in a few months she’s played a good guy and a bad guy in the same movie — and at least this time she isn’t given Cats-grade digital fur. It’s possible, however, that Star’s costuming is actually more unflattering: The film’s tiredest running gag is summed up by its opening faux-dictionary definition for cu•lottes.
This is a very loose mash up of Austin Powers and any given Will Ferrell film, cursed with a kind of live-action Muppets makeover (this last part is directly referenced) sans any actual spirit of anarchy. But what it most resembles is the feature film debut of a pair of sitcom side characters or a long-running SNL double-act, as though the half-hearted jokes and weak characterization should get a pass because we know these people so well. Except we don’t, so the film plays like a series of callbacks to a show that never existed, hoping for laughs from the tickling of a phantom limb. Perhaps you will be able to Mandela Effect yourself into thinking you really did spend decades chuckling at their shenanigans on TV, to which we say “Bravo.”
To be sure, with slightly greater frequency than that of a stopped clock, the Pepto-Bismol-and peppermint-hued movie does occasionally hit on a good bit. Star’s pronunciation of Don’s Cheadle’s surname. A lunatic cut back to Debbie at Talk Club: “I like looking at wicker, but I don’t like sitting in it.” And though it eventually labors the point, there’s the ditzily amusing extended riff on the name “Trish,” with each of them contributing details to the life story of an entirely imaginary woman, then getting upset at her entirely imaginary tragic fate. But it’s telling how often the funny, low-level insightful moments are just asides or background action to the forced mainstage hi-jinks. Even the lavish musical numbers, including one in which Dornan sings a power-ballad lament to a seagull, are somehow less engaging than the lounge pianist tinkling away in the hotel bar, whose songs are always and forever about boobies.
Ah yes, boobies. Boobies and dongs, dongs and boobies — it’s not fair on many levels to compare Barb and Star to Bridesmaids, but one of the unfairest of all is because Bridesmaids revelled in its R-rating, where Barb and Star is perkily, peachily PG-13. The bridesmaids were grown-ass women foulmouthedly working through their high-school-level jealousies; Barb and Star are a decade older but seem mentally and conversationally stuck in kindergarten. There is something depressing about two actresses in their forties playing down to the most condescending parody notion of what women in their forties are like, especially when those exact two women walked that line so brilliantly, only for thirtysomethings, the last time they collaborated on a screenplay.
And these two characters here are almost completely undifferentiated, so much so that you might even find yourself wondering if maybe it’s all a wild, conceptual sci-fi bluff and Barb and Star are the same person, one being the manifestation of the other’s subconscious. Instead, snacking as though on fudge on the r sounds in each other’s names, the two women bounce inane patter back and forth in a hall-of mirrors way that, if you’re philosophically inclined might send you off to research phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s concept of “The Other.” Perhaps that’s one way to get some LOLs here. Or perhaps you will really love the seagull bit. If Barb and Star gives you a laugh during this miserable time, you are most sincerely to be envied. For the rest of us, it’s just another day of hitting replay on that “I am not a cat” clip.