Amy Poehler’s directorial debut is filled with hilarious women, but this attempt at a female Sideways doesn’t quite hit the right notes.
As Wine Country begins, Rebecca is three days away from her 50th birthday. Her friends have whisked her away to Napa Valley to celebrate five decades on Earth. Abby (Amy Poehler) has planned it all, down to the second. Naomi (Maya Rudolph) has dedicated herself to making sure no one does anything but celebrate. Jenny (co-writer Emily Spivey) and Catherine (Ana Gasteyer) are too absorbed with their own stuff — germaphobia and work, respectively — to truly commit.
Val (Paula Pell), last but not least, cannot wait to show off her brand-new knees, make friends with every service industry worker they encounter, and, ideally, romance the young cute waitress Jade (Maya Erskine) she meets during their first dinner. The owner of the sprawling vacation property Tammy (Tina Fey) and Devon (Jason Schwartzman) — he comes with the house — show up to add spice.
Clearly, Wine Country is chock-a-block full of very funny women. As a result, it will make you laugh. However, considering the number of truly talented actors involved, the laughs prove surprisingly irregular. Lumbering where it should be spry, Country wanders from setpiece to setpiece.
Considering the number of truly talented actors involved, the laughs prove surprisingly irregular.
Part of the problem is that the characters feel like a collection of wine-mom cliches, not well-integrated beings. For instance, we know Abby got divorced years earlier, got fired very recently, and plans everything fanatically. What we don’t know is why she got divorced, how she has been since, what she even did for work, or if the planning thing has always been that way or developed over time. Ironically, Fey’s Tammy seems to be the most complete character despite not being a member of the friend corps and having considerably less time on-screen. Perhaps that’s why her bone-dry bluntness is the most reliable source of laughs in the feature.
The film is not without things to recommend it: Pell’s scene where she realizes the waitress’s interactions with her were not flirtations is understated, and all the more heartbreaking as a result. An earlier moment between Rudolph and Spivey in the hot tub seems to perfectly get the tragi-comedic vibe the larger movie appears to be going for.
As a director, Poehler gets off to a fascinating start, which is to the film’s credit. She does some very interesting things with space and light. The camera is not wildly dynamic under her guidance, but she knows how to lays out a scene is surprisingly solid. She knows how to give comedic performances the physical space to breathe. And, honestly, her use of light points to her being an effective director beyond her comedy roots.
Unfortunately, too often the movie instead goes for obnoxious setpieces like an endless scene of all the characters trying to get down a hill, making for a film that’s overlong and comedically flat. There are some wine diamonds in this pour, but far too often Wine Country just feels like a mouthful of sediment.