Stoner comedies are rarely appreciated in their time. Especially stoner comedies that aren’t explicitly about getting stoned. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, in which Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo play a pair of midwestern best friends who head to sunny Florida and find themselves in a heap of trouble, might look on its surface like the zany, mass-appeal comedies on which Wiig has built much of her success. But make no mistake about it — this is weirdo cinema all the way, filled with non sequiturs, oblique cutaways, and an impressive level of commitment to the bit from its stars. If it were opening in theaters, we’d probably be talking within a few days about how it crashed and burned at the box office. And then, a few weeks later, we’d be calling it a modern-day classic. It arrives preordained for cult status.
That aforementioned commitment is kind of the key with such pictures. The best stoner comedies win you over with a low-key insistence on their demented vision. You start off uncertain about whether this kind of humor “works,” and then the performances, often through sheer force of will, eventually get you on their odd wavelength, the movie inventing its audience as it goes along. Here, Wiig and Mumolo give off all the charming energy of a duo who have built these characters over a lifetime; theirs already feels like a classic bit. Living an uneventful existence in the sleepy town of Soft Rock, Nebraska, Barb (Mumolo) and Star’s (Wiig) world is rocked when they lose their jobs at the local Jennifer Convertibles, where all they apparently did was sit on their favorite floor-display couch and yammer away. (“I had a dream that I made love with that man on the Pringles can.” “What flavor Pringles was it?” “Plain. I like everything plain.” “You know who I had a crush on? Mr. Peanut.” “Oh my gosh!” “There’s something about him.” “Well, he’s so smart.”) After being vanquished from their “talking club” by the club’s cozily fascistic leader (played by a delightful Vanessa Bayer), they decide to shake things up by taking a trip to Vista del Mar, Florida, a town whose travel brochure landed in their hands via their friend Mickey (Wendi McLendon-Covey), who says she felt like the place gave her a “soul douche.”
Delivering their lines with complete-each-other’s-sentences brio, Wiig and Mumolo make for a nice little two-person ecosystem of random observations and constant distractions: These are people whose great dream is to ride a banana boat together, who will drop everything at the sight of a novelty seashell gift stand, and who can talk for an entire plane ride about their love for the name “Trish.” And by the time it’s all over, we’re kind of excited about the novelty seashell gifts, too, and we might even cheer a little when “Trish” shows up (as she must). Directed by Josh Greenbaum, the film around them — a sunny, colorful fantasia hopped up with montages and musical numbers and cameos (including Andy Garcia as Tommy Bahama, made somehow even funnier by the fact that the end credits cite the actor playing Tommy Bahama as “Tommy Bahama”) — matches their corny, horny, whipsawing energy.
While Barb and Star try to inject some adventure into their lives, a sinister, pale-faced mastermind in a hidden lair, Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Wiig), plots the destruction of Vista del Mar via a vast army of trained killer mosquitoes. (It’s all payback for a childhood humiliation that, in characteristically byzantine fashion, involved her being launched out of a cannon into the pool of a distant Disney cruise liner.) To help execute her elaborate plan, she dispatches her henchman Edgar (Jamie Dornan) to Vista del Mar, whereupon he runs into Barb and Star at a bar. Soon the trio are sharing a massive, drug-laced drink, and waking up in bed together. The presence of hunky Edgar threatens to split Barb and Star up, as they both have the hots for him, but no, our heroes are way too proper and loyal to ever state any of this outright. Instead, they politely sneak around each other’s backs and make all sorts of ridiculous excuses for where they were. (“I went to a turtle’s house” is one of the better ones.) Meanwhile, Edgar screws things up so bad that Sharon has to send another agent to fix his mess. That agent, played by Damon Wayans Jr., is somehow even more inept.
There are almost no real comedy setpieces in Barb & Star, nothing that achieves comic bliss by escalating to new levels of raucousness. (Though there are a couple of hilarious musical numbers, including a glorious one where a lovesick Edgar flounces, splits, leaps, and twirls around on a beach, singing lines like “I’m going up a palm tree/Like a cat up a palm tree/Who’s decided to go up a palm tree” and “Seagull on a tire, can you hear my prayer?”) The comedy doesn’t build so much as it drones on, understated in form but preposterous in content. It wins us over not through belly laughs but by making us feel like we’re privy to a wonderfully bizarre in-joke. Or, to put it another way: This is a film that pauses for some extended wisdom from a sage old crab named Morgan Freemand (with a d) and then continues along as if nothing has happened. It’s funny enough in the moment, but it’s a lot funnier half an hour later, when you think to yourself, This is a film that paused for some extended wisdom from a sage old crab named Morgan Freemand. With a d. It’s entirely possible that I’m laughing more about it now than I did during the movie.
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