There’s a myth about film criticism that it’s a serious, elitist enterprise, and that film critics want everything we see to have world-changing moral implications. While it’s true that part of a critic’s job is to promote great art–which includes directing viewers toward material they might not engage with otherwise–we don’t think all cinema needs to be difficult to engage with. Movies are art, yes, but they should also be fun.
All this is to say that Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar is a tropical blue beacon of absurd joy that has nothing profound to say, and is all the better for it. It arrives just in time to lift viewers’ spirits during an otherwise bummer of a COVID Valentine’s Day weekend. Written by and starring long-time writing partners Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig (the pair also wrote 2011’s Bridesmaids), Barb & Star is a weirdo love letter to female friendship, middle age and culottes. Every second of it is strange and wonderful.
Mumolo and Wiig (respectively) are the titular gal pals, 40-something lifelong residents of Soft Rock, Nebraska, with jobs at the “hottest spot in town,” a Jennifer Convertibles furniture showroom. When the store closes down, Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) face a mid-life crisis. They get their groove back with a vacation to Vista Del Mar, Florida, a fabled paradise where the sun always shines, everyone is friendly and the men are “dressed in Tommy Bahama, head to toe.”
Their beachfront joy is complicated by Edgar (Jamie Dornan), an attractive fellow hotel guest with a secret: he’s a spy on a mission for a supervillain (also Wiig) who plans to wipe Vista Del Mar off the map. Star’s attraction to Edgar threatens the ladies’ lifelong friendship. Edgar’s own romantic motivations for doing his manipulative boss’ bidding are also compromised as Star helps him learn what a healthy relationship looks like.
The format of Barb & Star feels like a late 90s comedy where characters with highly specific personalities find themselves facing a high-stakes situation (think Austin Powers or Superstar). Barb and Star have Fargo-adjacent accents with personal taste to match; they sport feathery helmet haircuts in addition to their beloved Chico’s culottes, and are known for their hot dog soup.
The movie’s sense of humor, however, is much more attuned to Wiig’s idiosyncratic performing sensibilities, as well as The Lonely Island’s style of anarchic humor. Fans of Hot Rod and MacGruber particularly will find a lot to love here, including surprise musical numbers, drugged-out club sequences set to Celine Dion, and bizarre linguistic gaffes. This is a movie in which Jamie Dornan sings a ballad titled “Seagulls in the Sand” on a beach, accompanied by insane balletic choreography. If that’s your kind of joke, Barb & Star is your kind of movie.
Ultimately, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar is about its central pairing, which is clearly informed by Mumolo and Wiig’s real-life partnership, and it’s lovely to see these two ladies genuinely enjoy each other’s company and stick together through thick and thin. The movie may poke fun at their mom-core style and relentless optimism, but it’s never cynical. Midwestern ladies in their 40s deserve fun, adventure and romance as much as anyone else, and audiences deserve an oddball escape during a dreary month in the middle of a pandemic.
“Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is now available on demand.