Movie Review: Amy Poehler invites ‘SNL’ gals on trip to ‘Wine Country’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Wine Country' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson do their best “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” impression in “The Hustle” this weekend at the multiplex, but your better option might just be staying home with a glass of wine to check out Netflix’s newest women-driven release.

Amy Poehler directs and stars in the new comedy “Wine Country,” rounding up her favorite “Saturday Night Live” cohorts for a boozy brunch of a flick that isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but is consistently amusing in an appetizing setting with characters we care about.

The story follows six middle-aged women who met decades ago working at a Chicago pizzeria named Antonio’s. Now much older with lives and families of their own, the group decides to take a wine-tasting trip to Napa Valley, California, to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the gals. What starts as a laid-back girls trip spirals out of control with a series of antics that reveal their deepest fears, desires and insecurities that ultimately bring the group closer together.

Co-written by former “SNL” writers Liz Cackowski (“Community”) and Emily Spivey (“Parks and Recreation”), the premise is inspired by the cast’s real-life vacation for Rachel Dratch’s 50th birthday. Each of the six characters is a version of the real-life actress, which is why they feel so authentic with pathos-driven character arcs of internal struggles each has to overcome.

Poehler’s ringleader Abby is a Type-A control freak like Monica Geller in “Friends,” constantly keeping time and planning the next stop on the itinerary. Her character growth is learning to let her guard down, live in the moment and admit that her recent job loss doesn’t define her.

Dratch’s Rebecca is the birthday girl ready to celebrate hitting the half-century-mark, but she has a husband that no one likes. Her character growth is to finally admit what her friends have long secretly known, that she’s better off without him and her unhealthy marriage.

Ana Gasteyer’s Catherine is a successful cooking-show star admired by the group for her ambition, but she is a modern workaholic constantly checking her emails. Her character growth is learning to put the phone down and appreciate the concept of work-life balance.

Maya Rudolph’s Naomi is a busy mother of four thrilled to have a rare weekend away from parenthood, but she can’t bring herself to listen to a voicemail from her doctor as she awaits test results. Her character growth is to embrace life’s surprises in sickness and in health.

Emily Spivey’s Jenny is the most dependable of the friends, declaring her loyalty to Naomi in a memorable hot tub scene where they reminisce about the late great Prince. Her character growth is to overcome her constant bouts of anxiety and let life take her where it leads.

And finally, Paula Pell steals the show as the outgoing lesbian, rigging a napkin into a Santa Claus beard to hand out vibrators matching each friend’s personality. Her delivery recalls Melissa McCarthy, but in a less slapstick way, inviting the affection of a much younger waitress (Maya Erskine of HBO’s “Insecure”). Her character growth is to stop waiting for the waitress to text back and realize the hot young flame isn’t cool enough for her to date.

This realization comes in an art exhibit scene that roasts millennials as pampered, a concept that will make Baby Boomers cheer but will make hardworking members of Generation Y roll their eyes at the lazy stereotype. The script, while lighthearted, tends to meander, relying on one-too-many guilty pleasure singalongs during bus-ride transitions between excursions.

Thankfully, it avoids the overdone trope of the group accidentally taking drugs, which we’ve seen so many times now that it’s become a cliché (i.e. pot brownies). Here, Molly pills are introduced, but the women ultimately decide against it because they’re all already taking so many prescription drugs — a scene that’s quite funny as they list their various medication.

It’s this restraint that ultimately makes “Wine Country” work despite its other over-the-top or indulgent gags. In her feature directorial debut, Poehler tests out her chops, from a high-angle shot as the women do their first toast, to a low-angle shot as Dratch throws out her back. Mostly though, Poehler fills the frame with bright natural landscapes, capturing the vineyards, infinity pools and mountains. After all, she’s less a cinematographer’s director as she is an actor’s director, allowing the veteran group of actresses ample room for improv.

This especially feels the case in the supporting roles of Tina Fey as the gruff, no-filter landlord Tammy who pops in to brag about her priceless antiquities, and Jason Schwartzman as her oddball assistant Devon who prepares squid as the group’s personal chef and won’t shut up as the group’s bus driver. We also get a brief cameo by Cackowski as a strict sommelier warning what’s off limits at the winery, as well as Emmy winner Cherry Jones (“24”) as a cynical psychic predicting doom and gloom for the ladies, then overcharging them for her services.

As these negative predictions come true, we sympathize with the characters as they find themselves. By the climax, you’ll appreciate the pun of a tumble “over the hill,” capping a comedy that never quite rises to the level of hilarious but provides a solid midrange option for an underserved demographic of women in their 50s that we don’t see nearly enough.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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