Get ready to clear a space in your itinerary for this brilliantly funny day-in-the-life story. The premise of Wine Country is simple – a group of women come together in Napa Valley for a birthday party, but soon find themselves arguing bitterly and turning on each other, as their frantic schedule of wine-tasting, sightseeing and accidental art shows becomes too much for them to handle. Hysterical mayhem ensues.
The writing is what makes Wine Country so appealing: the dialogue is hilarious, but extremely real. All the subtle movements of conversation, the awkward pauses, the interruptions, the mumbled whispers: they’re all there. The situations in which the women find themselves are always real – whether they’re discovering the meaning of life in the eyes of a raccoon, or a stranger in the house wielding a dead cuttlefish. It was one particular scene, early in the film, when the group goes out to a restaurant, that confirmed to me that the writing was perfect – that scene was identical to many family reunions I’ve attended.
However, it’s not until the tarot-card reader arrives that the movie suddenly…has a plot. Up until that point, the story is episodic and uneventful, we have no clear grasp on the characters, and we don’t even really get the sense that they’re stressed out – well, except Catherine, but we’ll get to her in a moment. But after the cards have been read, leaving them all with a deep sense of dread and impending death, the women are suddenly at each others’ throats, and the plot suddenly jumps into action and doesn’t ever slow down again. This might have been jarring, if the tarot-card scene hadn’t been phenomenal. Lady Sunshine (Cherry Jones), their reader, is one of the standouts in Wine Country, with her deadpan delivery of depressing news and her chipper smile as she announces the price of the reading. This scene is one of the best in the movie, and really jump-starts everything that happens next – as the women inevitably take the message of the cards to heart.
As for the women themselves, they work best when they’re a team, but they’re worth talking about individually because a lot of them really are that good. Obviously, I have to mention Amy Poehler and Tina Fey first, but I’d really rather not. Fey is just fine as Tammy, the rough-and-tough cowgirl who acts as a mentor to the women, and she manages to get some impactful and funny material to work with, but her performance is, for the most part, uninspiring. Poehler is great to begin with, playing Abby, the group leader and party planner who makes it her responsibility to get her team moving frenetically around Napa – but then somewhere in the third act her character just seems to dry up, and Poehler’s acting became forced and cringey: she tries to have an emotional monologue about climate change and first-world-problems, but it sounds unnatural and scripted – a lot of the best acting in the movie is that which feels improvised, and Poehler’s often doesn’t.
Maya Rudolph and Paula Pell, however, have a lot more to offer: Rudolph’s character Naomi is irreverent and relateable – even as she struggles with personal issues. Each character has a moment in the spotlight, and Naomi’s is definitely her drunken birthday-speech where she manages to fall off a piano – or is it her third-act encounter with a poisonous snake? Or perhaps the scene where she confesses how terrified she is of death? She has a lot of great moments. Pell has almost as many, playing the confident, boisterous, and energetic Val, who falls in love with a modern artist and then has to deal with the fall-out.
Catherine and Rebecca, are the best characters on the team, memorably portrayed by Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch, respectively. Gasteyer’s workaholic character is the outcast in the group, constantly leaving to take important calls or trying to convince her friends to do things none of them want to do. Dratch, on the other hand, plays the timid life-coach and birthday girl, whose attempts to keep her friends in check by offering them “feedback” only succeed in making her the target for all their pent-up anger and resentment.
Meanwhile, Emily Spivey portrays Jenny, the final member of the team, who has virtually nothing to do. For what it’s worth, she does a good job with what she’s got, but the role is so underwritten it’s hard to tell.
Wine Country manages to pack a delightfully entertaining punch, even with a few missteps in pacing and character development. Add it to your schedule if you’re looking for a hilarious comedy about friendship, loyalty, and female bonding, all set against the beautiful backdrop of Napa Valley’s rolling hills and vineyards.
Movie Rating: 8.5/10