' ' Cinema Romantico: Wine Country

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Wine Country

“Wine Country” gathers a plethora of gifted comic actors, all women, including old Saturday Night Live cohorts Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, and Ana Gasteyer, playing a group of longtime friends who have, as longtime friends will, moved away, though not lost touch, regathering amidst their busy lives and personal upheavals in Napa to celebrate the 50th birthday of Rebecca (Rachel Dratch), a jamboree planned by over-particular Abby (Amy Poehler). This set-up of womanhood and beautiful locations suggests Nancy Meyers. But then, if this was Nancy Meyers, the women would get back in the groove through various emergent love interests. And in “Wine Country”, Poehler, who also directed, working from a script by Emily Spivey (who co-stars) and Liz Cackowski, keeps the proceedings conspicuously male-free. The most prominent male is Devon (Jason Schwartzman), a valet of sorts packaged with the house they rent, who exists as inoffensively vapid ornamentation. When he remarks, self-impressed, near the end, “My work here is done”, the line specifically underscores how he hasn’t changed anything.

No, the only romantic partner, Jade (Maya Erskine), is a woman too, though she’s hardly a romantic partner at all, more a glimpse of the demarcation line of age (and eventual millennial punching bag) for Val (Paula Pell), evocative of how the movie both indulges in and dispenses with rote storytelling. If anything, you wished “Wine Country” dispensed with rote storytelling more. If Rebecca has a semi-turning-50 crisis, and if Abby must come to grips with her fastidiousness, and if Catherine (Ana Gasteyer) is a workaholic who must learn to let go (of her phone), the movie can’t lift any of these into the realm of revelatory nor flippantly turn these narrative clichés on their head, preferring to highlight the repartee and conviviality, like a scene where Val plays, ah, a version of Santa Claus, where the fun stems from seeing just how much all these actors seem to be having fun in the moment.

As a first-time feature film director, Poehler, as first-timers will, has her ups and downs. The opening, as the five women discuss their getaway on the phone, is deftly composed, each frame stacked with background action that implicitly conveys the respective characters’ situations without them having to verbally exposit overmuch. In the climactic hilltop sequence, however, a solid gag demonstrating how sound doesn’t really travel is partially counteracted by how the moment’s apparently imminent danger is never quite made visually clear. Wine country itself, meanwhile, is merely presented in a sterile package of travelogue shots, like a run-of-the-mill Netflix special where some bland so & so goes somewhere idyllic, the landscape less a supporting character, as they say, than scenic filler. In fact, all the characters demonstrate disinterest in the finer points of wine, including an extended sequence with a frustrated sommelier, which contains humor, yes, but also distinct surliness, or notes of bitterness if we want to employ a vino metaphor.

That bitterness, evoked in the 50th birthday, aging women being of the world but not exactly part of it, bubbles below the surface of the whole movie and occasionally seeps to the top in interesting ways. Jade, a server the gang meets at their first dinner, looks at these older ladies having fun like Abbi and Ilana looked at HRC, as if they are rock star elders. Yet later, when Jade invites them to her art show, “Wine Country” turns nasty as the gal pals struggle to make sense of their strange surroundings and these even stranger youths, while the youths are mesmerized by their out of touch elders, taking smartphone photos of them as if they are animals in cages for observation. This scene might be intended as comedy but there is a palpable tension, a genuinely uncomfortable dividing line, so uncomfortable, in fact, that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with it and quickly makes an unsatisfactory exit, preferring instead to chart resolution through the respective emotional hills each character must climb (or, more accurately, descend).

No, “Wine Country” maintains a mostly mellow vibe, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea when you have such a gifted cast and just give them room to riff. Indeed, among the film’s funniest moments is Rebecca’s nighttime, emotionally crystallizing encounter with a raccoon, which is recounted afterwards in monologue rather than shown, perhaps from a lack of visual imagination, perhaps to spotlight Dratch, perhaps both. Whatever the case, Dratch’s patented hysterical frenzy sells the speech completely, concluding with her order to be taken to brunch, declaring “Put me in my finest muumuu!”, a line that made me laugh out loud from her loony commitment to it. The comical high point, however, is Rudolph’s character drunkenly commandeering a microphone at a winery, not from any exact lines, none of which I remember, but simply her convincingly soused energy, the movie’s one moment when it truly feels as if anything is possible.

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