Both on screen and off, Amy Poehler’s steadfast belief in the power of women working together has made her a sort of patron saint of female friendship, an ambassador of the joys of—as our sister site The Onion once put it—friends validating the living shit out of each other. Poehler’s not faking it when she gushes in interviews about how wonderful and talented all of her gal pals are, a fact that’s evident throughout her feature directorial debut, the ladies-of-a-certain-age buddy comedy Wine Country. As with Poehler’s previous film vehicles with Tina Fey, Wine Country views its story mostly as a generic, cheerful vessel for jokes and performances, taking well-worn archetypes and infusing them with the personalities of, and dynamics between, the actors playing them. The film’s cast is stacked with the real-life friends Poehler has made throughout her decades in comedy, and she showcases them all as adoringly as you might expect.
The friends accompanying Poehler’s type-A over-planner Abby on a celebratory birthday weekend to Napa include modest Rebecca (Rachel Dratch); workaholic Catherine (Ana Gasteyer); exhausted Naomi (Maya Rudolph); over-it Jenny (Emily Spivey, who co-wrote the screenplay); and cheerful Val (Paula Pell), who just got new knees and is looking for new love to go with them. She’ll give it her best effort with a much younger painter named Jade (Maya Erskine), one of a handful of characters who enter the group’s orbit throughout the trip. The others include Tammy (Tina Fey), the brusque, flannel-clad owner of their rental house; Devon (Jason Schwartzman), their paella-obsessed driver, who—as a running joke throughout the movie goes—“came with the house”; and Miss Sunshine (Cherry Jones), a cynical psychic whose cards are full of foreshadowing.
These characters are all moons orbiting Planet Friendship, however, as Wine Country takes our core sextet from restaurant to hot tub to winery and back again, pairing them off for funny, improv-heavy conversations fueled by endless glasses of wine. Listing the strengths of the film mostly involves quoting a series of funny bits, each tailored to that particular cast member’s strengths. Pell steals the show early on when she opens up her purse and declares it to be “Dickmas,” presenting each of her friends with a thoughtfully purchased dildo, while Rudolph gets in some of the film’s best one-liners (in response to a rhetorical question about the source of Prince’s deep artistic pain, she replies, “His hips”) as well as a big laugh when she grabs the mic from an al fresco jazz trio and turns a civilized wine tasting into a day-drunk karaoke bar. Later in the film, Dratch delivers a hilarious monologue about having a personal epiphany while staring into the eyes of a raccoon that culminates with a triumphant cry of, “Put me in my finest muumuu!”
But while the chemistry between the core cast is easy and convincing, generated by skillful banter and impromptu singalongs, the scripted elements of Wine Country are more mixed. An ongoing bit where the group outright ignores all of their tour guides—they’re there to drink, not to learn—only gets funnier as the film goes on, as does a very pointed bit about gendered language and therapy-speak. (“Can I say something?”) But other aspects of the script start clunky and end hollow: Although Chicago is, admittedly, the spiritual home of all improv comedians, the idea that all six of these women became best friends while working at a deep-dish pizza restaurant, and stayed close for decades afterwards, raises more questions than it answers. The “kids these days” jokes scattered throughout the script are also predictable, as are the secrets that spill out once the wine really starts flowing. (In many ways, these dynamics resemble those of Girls Trip, a film with which Wine Country shares quite a bit of interpersonal DNA.) But while this isn’t the most original project that any of these women have ever done, it is as warm and comfortable as a cashmere blanket draped around one’s shoulders by a considerate friend.