Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar ★★★½

Everything I learned while satisfying two years of curriculum for a cinema studies minor has now been proven to be a lie. 

barb and straI was taught to appreciate the framing of a scene, particularly those that look like they’ve been yanked from the perfect mind of Federico Fellini or, in lesser cases, presided over by Richard Brody. My Film Theory and Criticism professor once told the class of 27 (nine of which took the class because they once saw Fight Club and dug it) that Jean-Luc Godard’s long take of a traffic jam in his 1967 film, Weekend, was the greatest scene in the history of cinema. We worshipped at the altar of Louis Delluc and sacrificed baby goats at the behest of Dziga Vertov’s spirit, which floated about our lecture hall and once whacked the back of my head for receiving a B- on my research paper.

This was not the kind of course that would have shown its students Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, and for that reason, I hope that never again will any student have to subject themselves to such rubbish. If you’re already enrolled, and it’s too late, just know you’re being lied to. 

Trust me, for I have seen the light. It comes in the form of two women named Barb and Star. They’re portrayed on film, written into existence, and produced by Annie Mumolo (Barb!) and Kristen Wiig (Star!). They’re going – you betcha – to Vista Del Mar, which the internet will tell you is one of two things: a child and family services outfit in Los Angeles, or a hospital in Ventura. Barb and Star’s Vista Del Mar is neither a social work firm nor medical clinic, but a Floridian resort experience that they heard about from a power-walking pal. It’s hard to believe that two ladies who carry themselves with a vibrancy akin to the wallpaper inside of a Dylan’s Candy Bar could possibly need a pick-me-up. But having just been fired from their jobs at the local Jennifer Convertibles – their corporate overlords forgot to tell their branch that the chain has gone entirely out of business – it’s certainly a nice perk to revitalize their already-incessant perkiness.  

They leave the stress of unemployment, pre-5 p.m. cocktail shame, and the Talking Club – a group of white women that gather weekly to… talk, one of the film’s many top-tier suburbia quips – behind and jet off to their tropical retreat, seeking sand, sun, and time together. That’s as if they don’t get enough of it at home. Barb and Star live together to fill the emotional voids left behind by their absent husbands and don’t limit their association to that of mere roommates. When one had a shift at work, the other would come to the store for the day, just in case one had five (or 55) free minutes to chat. 

In spirit, this is a tandem that buddy comedies typically aim to create, but then detrimentally scale down in an effort to offer audiences something familiar; Mumolo and Wiig, to their credit, have no interest in making their characters at all relatable, at least behaviorally. Their singularity is part of the film’s overwhelming charm, and their outspoken bond is what propels it. These inseparable, bubbling pals are so identical that they make The Parent Trap’s dueling twins look like they were played by Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning.  

Of course, this can’t possibly just be a film about a couple of pals who set course for a tropical haven and sip neon-tinted slushies by the pool. There’s plenty of that, but there’s also an evil plot afoot, helmed by a villainous, albino Kristen Wiig, one which she enlists one boy genius operative and one Christian Grey (well, Edgar Paget, played by Jamie Dornan) to carry out as her henchmen. It involves deadly mosquitos, an “undercover” Marlon Wayans, and the demise of the entire resort and those in it. Love proves to be ruinous, too; Barb and Star lie to one another about developing affection for Edgar, and Edgar struggles to maneuver a love square involving the titular duo and Wiig’s heinous counterpart. It’s a lot. And much of it, if we’re to be frank, is quite inconsequential and stupid.

But here’s the thing: the stupidity of Barb and Star is fantastic. It’s what makes it so smart. It’s a romp in romp’s clothing, a self-aware and rollicking camp comedy that feels preeminently destined (and designed) to achieve cult status within a year. It has musical numbers – particularly one that gives Dornan the opportunity to offer the best work of his career, not to mention the funniest (yes, even funnier than whatever the Fifty Shades saga was ever trying to pull off). It has a cameo from a crab with a voice belonging to Hollywood’s de facto narrator, intensive contemplation about the perfection of the name “Trish,” gags involving culottes, and an opposition to logic. It’s the comedy of the decade so far; it might be the movie of the damn century. 

Okay, okay, so perhaps I’m still a bit high on this supply, or whatever they put at the bottom of the “Buried Treasure,” the Palm Vista Hotel bar’s signature spirit. But you should want to be, too. The phrase “if this is wrong, then I don’t want to be right” could work on this film, but I’d go so far as to say, “if Barb and Star is a bad movie, then I don’t ever want to see another good one.” If that means waiting another nine years for Wiig and Mumolo to team up for a killer chuckle – they previously co-wrote Bridesmaids, for which they were nominated for an Oscar – then I’m all for it. This is a courageously committed-to-the-bit twosome with a penchant for overdoing everything except the joke. Their timing is impeccable and is perfectly aided by Josh Greenbaum’s direction, which is anything but intrusive. 

And refreshingly, they rely on the kind of humor that can come off bafflingly inane and yet resonate with an advanced sophistication not often present in most studio comedies these days. Typically, the effort put forth starts and stops with the varying ways to implicate genitalia in a one-liner. Mumolo and Wiig would rather send their characters down a minute-long rabbit hole in which they examine Mr. Peanut’s hotness. It’s the right decision, as are most of the comedic decisions this troupe can’t help but sneak in. Sure, some feel like they’ve come as part of a “one for you, one for me” agreement with a studio. But the payoff is a movie that exists in its own wholly exceptional universe, conventions, reason, and earth tones be damned.

My old film professor loved André Bazin, yet another man who would hate Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Needless to say, Bazin is an imbecile. He’s someone who pushed against surreal cinema, arguing that film’s essence lay in its ability to mechanically reproduce reality, not in its difference from it. I imagine that Barb and Star would find something to love about Bazin; maybe his receding hairline, for which they’d cheerfully offer coupons on Rogaine. But they shouldn’t concern themselves with the feelings of film theorists such as himself, and neither should you. Theory is boring, and theory is a lie. Barb and Star – in reality, not in theory – possess all the truth you’ll ever need.

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