‘Barb and Star’ Cut Loose

Two hearts, and sometimes three, beat as one on the Florida shoreline.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is an aqua-colored fantasia set on Florida sands (but filmed in New Mexico and Mexico). The cast includes a cornucopia of oddball characters, such as: a talking crab named Morgan Freemond who sounds just like Morgan Freeman, Reba McEntire masquerading as an oleaginous mermaid, a frequently shirtless Jamie Dornan singing silly seaside lyrics (“Seagulls in the sand can you hear my prayer?”), and a swarm of radio-controlled mosquitos on a deadly mission. Saturated with sunshine and frivolity, the second film written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig isn’t intended to satisfy fans of their previous collaboration Bridesmaids (2011). 

Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) are single, middle-aged, Midwestern women who work at the same department store, live together, and sleep in the same bedroom (though in separate twin beds). There’s a cleverly edited sequence in which Barb and Star’s conversation continues nonstop until they reach their hotel in far away Vista Del Mar, Florida. It’s as if Lucy McGillicuddy had married Lucy McGillicuddy instead of Ricky Ricardo. These best friends find each other’s zany observations endlessly compelling. The sapphic undertones are only made explicit briefly when they enjoy a threeway with the hunky Edgar (Dornan). After their busy, drunken, dizzying fling with him, these longtime pals are owning and enjoying their sexual fluidity, rather than sublimating it. They’re cutting themselves loose on a boozy holiday.

In Mumolo and Wiig’s moral universe, the battle between good and evil has its origins in high school. The wealthy, pretty “popular girl” in Bridesmaids (Rose Byrne) is Wiig’s sublime antagonist. Wiig’s character is unemployed, perpetually down on her luck, and about to self-destruct. Their rivalry for the bride’s affections isn’t that far removed from an adolescent love triangle in a John Hughes’ film. Barb and Star picks up on, repeats, and expands that same theme of a thwarted teenager, here turned adult, who’s still suffering and indignant about the past. 

Sharon Gordon Fisherman was the Carrie of her high school (no pig’s blood but a similar public humiliation). In response to that early hurt, Wiig, in a second role, plays Fisherman as an apex predator. Where Bridesmaids delivered flawed and relatable characters within a familiar storyline, Barb and Star turns Fisherman into a supervillain straight out of an Austin Powers movie. She’s comical and dastardly in a cartoonish, big budget Hollywood way. In Fisherman’s secret lair and laboratory, a scientist invents a swarm of killer mosquitos for her. She intends to unloose them in her hometown, which turns out to be Vista Del Mar!

Unbeknownst to her, Barb and Star’s arrival in Florida may interfere with her devious plans. What Mumolo and Wiig miss is that they already had an exquisite villain back in the drab confines of Barb and Star’s suburban neighborhood. They’re part of a weekly women’s group run with monstrous efficiency by Debbie (Vanessa Bayer). It’s a book club manqué, in which the participants entertain each other with anecdotes from their daily lives. Debbie is ruthless when it comes to asserting the established rules of their group. When a woman named Gail arrives a couple of minutes late, Debbie refuses to let her join them inside. 

Debbie’s small-minded pettiness speaks volumes about the people Barb and Star interact with in their daily lives and why they want to escape from them. But the screenwriters shy away from examining the frustrations of domesticity and dull rule followers. The white hot anger that Debbie exhibits is abandoned in favor of a spring break orgy. In Bridesmaids, Mumolo and Wiig concentrated on one woman’s frazzled psychology. I wanted Barb and Star to stay put, the way that Big Little Lies does, to observe these women in their home environments.

But Barb and Star is dadaist in comparison to Bridesmaids, a compendium of inside jokes delivered at a breakneck pace. Every supporting character says something absurd, often eliciting a laugh, before disappearing from view. The movie delivers the same temporary high as a strawberry daiquiri, followed by the low, queasy sensation that sugar and alcohol are teaming up to fog up your frontal lobes.

Bridesmaids offers a subversive take on a conventional narrative. Neither the engagement party nor the bridal fittings go according to plan. But the film ends with a friendship repaired, a happy, dazzling wedding, and a promising new love affair. Marriage isn’t on anyone’s mind in Barb and Star. Barb’s a widow; Star a divorcé. Neither seems nostalgic or embittered about their current marital status. After all, they have each other. Where Edgar will sleep in their shared home is left very TBD.       

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is now streaming on Amazon.

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