The first few scenes of “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” the new, wacky lime Daiquiri of a comedy written by and starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, feel like a long setup for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) are fluffy-haired, middle-aged best friends from an unnamed Midwestern town who have decided to go on a big trip to shake things up. The duo—who share a house, a hair style, and an unceasing passion for discount culottes—have just lost their jobs as sales clerks at Jennifer Convertibles, where they had spent most of their days gossiping on one of the store’s floor-model love seats. (Conversation topics included Star’s caramel-square addiction and erotic dreams about “that man on the Pringles can.”) Barb is a widow—her late husband, Ron Quicksilver, whom she describes as “so manly there were rumors he was chemically off,” died during a Black Friday stampede at the local Stereo Hut. Star (whose name is “short for Starbara”) is a divorcée; her ex-husband, Carmine Testaviglio, a noted foot fetishist, left her for a woman with girthier toes. (Her own, Star admits, are “like little pieces of rice.”) After running into a tanned friend (Wendi McLendon-Covey) who has just returned from the boomer paradise of Vista Del Mar, Florida, Barb and Star realize that, somewhere along the way, they’ve lost their youthful dazzle. So they decide to pack up their capri pants—along with “fringy shorts,” a freeze-dried cheese pizza, and a Chico’s catalogue—and soak up some rays.
There are solid jokes from the get-go—Vanessa Bayer steals an early scene as the dictatorial leader of the local women’s “talking club”—but it’s not clear right away what the movie is up to. Are Wiig and Mumolo, longtime denizens of Los Angeles (they first met as part of the L.A. sketch-comedy troupe the Groundlings), taking the piss out of flyover over-forties? Lord knows the last few years have not been kind, joke-wise, to middle-aged white women, who appear in comedies, when they appear at all, as tedious pumpkin-spice-loving basics at best, and cruel Karens at worst. (Just last week, for example, “S.N.L.” aired a sketch that gently mocked the “wine mom” aesthetic, in which a woman is given a deluge of novelty kitchen plaques that strongly suggest she is an alcoholic.) But, as “Barb and Star” unfolds, its quirky heroines feel less and less like stand-ins for a certain type of T. J. Maxx shopper. Instead, the film goes for something far more specific and silly, loving and often lovely. Whereas so many comedies are either retreads of old ideas or feel designed by committee to hit newsy talking points, “Barb and Star” is the rare film that feels sui generis in both conceit and execution: Barb and Star are such finely drawn caricatures that they could be nobody else but themselves.
The scene that won me over takes place during the pair’s flight to Florida. (As evidenced by the much-memed plane antics in Wiig and Mumolo’s previous movie collaboration, “Bridesmaids,” the two know how to make air travel funny.) After cooing about the plane’s free magazine, Barb and Star discover that they share a mutual affection for the first name Trish. They proceed to outline the life story of an imaginary Trish, a kind of beneficent guardian angel who loves the holidays (Star: “Trish? At Christmas? Forget it.”), country dancing (Barb: “She has a natural sense of rhythm”), and storm-chasing (Barb: “Trish loses one of her ears in a twister, but not her hearing”). In Barb and Star’s joint fantasy, when Trish gets skin cancer, she bravely faces death by walking off a cliff and becoming one with the sea (they weep as they recount this). The extended “Trish” segment, which continues after the women have deplaned, becomes a sort of mission statement for the goofball antics to come. Wiig and Mumolo clearly adore Barb and Star the way that Barb and Star adore Trish. You can imagine them staying up late to painstakingly describe their onscreen avatars in the way that Barb and Star imagine Trish putting out big bowls of candy for the kids at Halloween (“Because she trusts,” they say together).
Last weekend, the comedian and screenwriter Joel Kim Booster tweeted, about the film, “I hope little kids watch BARB AND STAR at a sleepover and only one of them gets it and thinks it’s funny and then that kid grows up to be famous and says one of their early influences was BARB AND STAR.” In a concise way, Booster summed up an absurdist comedy’s highest aspiration: that it be a few people’s very favorite thing, and otherwise alienate anyone who doesn’t care to meet it on its own daffy terms. “Barb and Star”—like the “Austin Powers” series, or “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” or “Josie and the Pussycats,” or “Wayne’s World,” or “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” or “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” before it—feels destined for this hallowed fate. I have spent the past few days texting quotes from the movie back and forth with a friend, as if we are huddled in the corner at a slumber party. All the jokes somehow feel like inside jokes. (My current favorite: “You could model for effing Chicos. Or Costco. The Kirkland brand!”)
Without giving too much away, Barb and Star are not the only middle-aged ladies visiting Vista Del Mar during what turns out to be the week of the annual “Seafood Jam.” Wiig plays a second character, an albino villainess named Dr. Lady (née Sharon Gordon Fisherman), who grew up in the town and was ostracized because of her inability to withstand sunlight. (Her past is shown in a “Carrie”-esque flashback sequence, in which a gaggle of popular girls conspire to crown her the fake “Shrimp Queen.”) Dr. Lady plans to unleash a swarm of killer mosquitos on the beach, in order to inflict maximum pain on her former bullies. She is aided in this scheme by her erstwhile lover and devoted henchman, Edgar Pagét (the handsome Irish actor Jamie Dornan, in his first intentionally comedic role, following his turn in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series), who hopes that, after the murders, they will finally become an “official couple.” (Dr. Lady is as withholding of love as she is frothing for revenge.) While drinking away his problems at the bar of the gaudy Palm Vista Hotel (the site of a Busby Berkeley-inspired dance number that pushes the film into full Technicolor derangement), Edgar meets Barb and Star, who agree to a ménage-a-cocktail and split a fishbowl full of blue liquor. What follows is a night of dancing (to a techno remix of “My Heart Will Go On”), a group orgy, and, between Edgar and Star, the beginnings of a romantic connection. (Without ever raising an eyebrow at post-menopausal sensuality, the film revels in pushing it to flexible extremes.) For the first time in years, Barb and Star embark on separate paths. While Star indulges in a hot-and-heavy fling with Edgar, Barb allows herself a series of solo adventures, including smoking pot while parasailing and riding a motorcycle while airing out her unshaven armpits. (These high jinks unfold in a montage set to Annette Funicello’s beach-blanket banger “Pineapple Princess.”)
The rest of the movie plays out as a tense race against time (and mosquitos), as well as a tenderhearted meditation on lifelong friendship and getting one’s groove back. But the ultimate point is that it doesn’t really have a point, nor does it have to. It’s playtime, all the way through. Dornan performs a plaintive song about heartbreak on the beach (sample lyric: “Seagulls in the sand, can you hear my prayer?”), which involves leaping and wave-frolicking. Damon Wayans, Jr., shows up as a spy named Darlie Bunkle who is terrible at keeping secrets. Andy Garcia, fully embracing his sex-symbol status among the Chardonnay-swilling set, does a quick cameo as Tommy Bahama, the human embodiment of the Hawaiian-shirt brand. The child actor Reyn Doi is impossibly goofy as Yoyo, Dr. Lady’s sidekick, who is a big fan of Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb’s schmaltzy easy-listening hit, “Guilty.” There are little gags everywhere you look: the punny names of the kiosks on the boardwalk (“We Sell Sea Shells,” “Beleafy Ornate”), the ungraceful way Mumolo hoists herself out of a bathroom window, how Wiig dizzily shakes her head to a cartoon ringing that turns out to be coming from a cell phone, a near-death experience involving Kermit the Frog, a crab that talks in the voice of Morgan Freeman. The punchlines are regularly stupid, genuinely odd, and always unexpected. When Barb and Star lie to each other about where they have been one night, they both invent an alibi that involves meeting a turtle.
“Barb and Star” may not be great cinema, but it is great kitsch, and, like the best cult hits, it is the sort of movie that will bloom with time and multiple viewings. I would have enjoyed watching it in a crowded theatre, laughing with strangers as Barb and Star bounce around on a banana boat (“You’re in for a real tit-flapper,” one hotel employee notes). But I also found it to be ideal pandemic watching, both an easy form of fruit-punch escapism and a soft parable about enduring bonds during a lonely time. The film transported me, not only to a future when we can take safe and sanctioned vacations again but also to a sweet, collaborative place where everyone is equally committed to the bit, and a good pair of culottes can save the day.