Wine Country - A Review.
This is a movie that understands women. That understands for example that deep down inside, it’s NOT about men! (Someone ought to alert the male screenwriters / directors / producers, already!) And that sometimes, all you need from life, is to sing “Eternal Flame” with your best friends, while wearing your “best muumuu”.
Six women in their 50s (or thereabouts) who have been friends for decades – ever since they waited tables at a Pizza place in Chicago - meet for a birthday weekend at Napa Valley. That’s the plot of the Netflix movie “Wine Country” basically. You go into it, expecting a movie that follows the usual adults-misbehaving format (getting drunk, smoking pot, making a fool of one’s self at karaoke bars, having-ill-conceived one night stands, ect) and on some level it does, but this one has more smarts and heart and texture that you have initially suspected!
If coastal resorts have always been seen in cinema, as a good setting for coming of age stories, then wine country ones are traditionally seen as coming-to-terms-with-middle-age (see Sideways, Botte Shock, etc) And it makes sense. It’ s good to have the support of beautiful vistas and plenty of booze in close proximity when you are facing your own mortality… Unlike cinematic male-bonding trips, which are always (with the exception of the “The Trip”) about men looking for a distraction and an escape from monogamy and the moral structures of relationships and marriage (which is another way of saying: for striptease clubs and prostitutes), cinematic female bonding trips (much like their real life equivalent) focus on the relationships that bind women together, making them family. Not because they’ve been to a prison in Thailand together during a dirty weekend, or because they need to keep each other’s secrets about shady interactions with striptease dancers, but because of the memories and emotional connection they share. Their trips are more about reconnection, rather than escapism. And this movie is a great example of that!
This is above all else, a movie that offers a fascinating, credible look behind the curtain of female friendships. In the dynamics of the relationship of these women, we recognise our own patterns: the friend who is always reluctant to go anywhere, the uptight friend who is planning the shit out of everything, the friend (usually the exhausted stay-home mum) who just wants to drink, the friend who is constantly checking her phone, the friend who is always on the look out for hook ups, the friend who is just chill, no matter what (until she throws her back out), the grievances that are constantly aired but never with evil intent, (and rarely face to face): the passive aggressiveness of talking about each other behind each other’ s backs, and then, the way all annoyances, all complaints, all hurt feelings magically disappear the minute the friend who caused all that needs you. This is all familiar (as well as familial) territory. We know these ladies. We kind of are, these ladies!
Directed by Amy Poehler, and scripted with insight and sensitivity by Liz Cackowski and Emily Spivey (who saves for herself the most subdued character among them all), this is a movie that has no great ambitions, but which hits all the right notes. Collectively (and of course individually) the eclectic cast possess considerable comedic chops, as most of them (or is it all of them?) are SNL alumnae after all (Amy Poehler , Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph, Paula Pell, Emily Spivey and Tina Fay in a smaller role, as their no-nonsense landlady). Even though this is an ensample-cast-kind-of-movie, it does not mean that any of them is overlooked: The writing is such that each character tells a full story even if their screen time is limited.
Amy Poehler (like many other actors / turned directors) gives the performance of her life in this one: reigned in, at times heartbreaking, even introvert and esoteric when needed, nothing over the top, not a single note that’s out of tune. (Which might mean she should direct herself in all future projects!) In fact, they are all on great form, but Paula Pell in particular, is something of a revelation, blowing through scenes like a tornado, making us wonder why we have not seen more of her in other things?
This is a movie that has all the usual ingredients of this subgenre: a cancer scare, a lumbago, getting drunk, fucking a random guy, singing Bangles at the top of your lungs, a lesbian attempting to date the very first lesbian she encounters on the trip, 80s and 90s upbeat tunes, and having an epiphany or two about your life. Sure, this follows the formulaic format of most buddy movies, yet there’s undeniably heart here. After the (obligatory) getting-stupidly-drunk bit is out of the way, things pick up, as attention turns to the dynamics of their friendship. Even though not much is happening, as this is a movie that follows a kind of day-in-the-life structure (or in any case weekend-in the-life) the funny observations, the easygoing charm, and the cast’s fizzing chemistry carries us on. As the six ladies take scenic routes of the wine country via bus, eat at restaurants, face millennials, belt out 80’s ballads, or do the wine tasting bit (to hilarious effect), they are reconnecting and facing life altering dilemmas. Not everything hits, though, most notably when they venture into physical comedy territory (that whole rolling down the hill business, or the supposedly wacky antics of Paula Pell’s character, when she is stepping into Melissa Mcarthy territory and does that whole running-and-doing-acrobatics bit that leaves us wondering “Why?” yet it is all saved by the writing which deftly balances humanity with comedy. It is their relationship, (a beautiful mix of contradiction, affection, and humor) that elevates this beyond genre stereotypes.
The scenes at the winery get the best laughs - their boredom with people who insist on thinking you want to listen to them go on and on about wine, is priceless! And the scene in the art gallery is of course pretty spot on, as they are faced with the most annoying of millennial subsects: the millennial artists (that make all the rest of us literally ashame to say what we do for a living!) Was there ever a deeper generational gap than this one, I wonder? Even back in the 50s, when the whole generational war was initiated, middle aged people who thought Pat Boone was a rock god, would on some level still feel a connection with bobby sockers and Rock ‘n’ Roll dancing teens, and visa versa. They could at least recognize each other as being part of the same species. Which is more than many of us (from both ends of the spectrum) can say. (Though only the middle aged ones WILL say it, as being branded “offensive” is not exactly their greatest concern….) Wine Country gives us just that: an Art world inhabited by a special brand of millennials: self important, arrogant whippersnappers, doing gimmicky Art, in this particular case, shoe boxes, or paper coffee cups mounted on the wall, someone’s laundry, a girl posing in front of phone cameras, or a series of paintings that pay tribute to the 80s sitcom Nanny (“Fran Fine” as a princess, as Frida Kahlo, as Amelia Earhart, as an astronaut, and so on) all in order to indicate that “Nanny” was not apparently a sitcom but a “post-modern psycho-drama about classism and ambition in the 90s…”All said with no sense of irony (despite the ironic classes and ironic / gender bending outfits they choose to wear of course). When the ladies are faced with all these self-congratulatory statements and pointless nonsense, they are pretty outspoken about it, and their ranting just warms our heart! Of course the arrogant youths first see it as “offensive” and then, start to think it is a kind of “happening”, a kind of live “installation”. The artist even asks them to come the following night and repeat their ranting! Which about sums it up. (What is the use of actual feelings when they are not aimed to provide validation right?)
When Maya Rudolph’s character asks them: “My oldest kid is 15, and on the verge of becoming …this… I just want to know, how do I stop her from becoming an asshole?”, or when Amy Poehler’s character says: “I CAN’T with the confidence of these people!”, they speak for all of us.
Of course the generational gap goes both ways: young people are equally brutal when judging older people. Especially tech-challenged ones. Any Poehler’s character loses her job for example, because she is seen as being less than nifty when it comes to social media. “One time I can’t figure out how to get on snapchat. ONE TIME!” she cries in desperation. To which her friend replies full of understanding: “Young people blow.”
As it turns out, they do have some epiphanies about the direction their life is taking but this is again done in a way that rings true, rather than following the usual recipe so often scripted by male writers. The female writers of this, for one, do not romanticise the hook up two of them have with the weird chef guy – in fact they seem not to give it a second thought! Plus, it is not seen as an opportunity to show some weird sex thing (which again would be the choice of a contemporary male writer / director) and none of them see it as anything other than random, insignificant and kind of hilarious (“I guess he does ‘come’ with the house”) Also, when it comes to turning 50, it tells it like it is: it is the time when your eyes are opened and you run out of the ability to pretend, which also means it is the time when divorce is seen as an improvement rather than a tragedy, the time when friends become pretty much your family, when priorities shift, and vanities die with a whimper.
By the end of the movie, decisions are being made: one of them is gearing for a long overdue divorce, one of them is opting out of a career opportunity, another is facing the fact that she needs to stop chasing after younger love interests, while another is trying to come to terms with losing her job. Yet all of it is thankfully, surprisingly, shockingly even, seen as wholly unrelated to men!! These crises, these decisions are about them, not the men in their life, or even their kids. How many movies do that? See women as independent individuals with needs of their own, which are unrelated to those of their husbands / boyfriends or kids? Whose great concerns are related to decisions relating to their job, and their peace of mind rather than their marriage? And how many movies were ever made that see single women as doing anything other than pursuing and then (ideally) getting a boyfriend / husband, or not ending with them in a wedding dress? Which is to say: how many movies are out there, which do not fail the Bechdel test: how many movies are about women who talk to each other about something other than a man?
Wine Trip, is a movie in short, that sort of puts a loving arm around the girl that is hiding behind our middle-agedness, reassuring it that it is all right to age.“It will be shitty, but kind of OK too! And inevitable! So stop resisting it!” A message that is punctuated by the choice of actresses as well: all of them are in real life, sharp, intelligent, funny as hell ladies who look like the rest of us. Like individuals! Instead of, you know, like ageing, identical Barbie dolls, or cloned, emaciated marathon runners, with permanently surprised eyes, and lips that look like they have been stunk by bees, who despite being over 50, they still wants us to think they are 25. In short, scared out of their wits (because they are ageing) creatures, that make you want to quote “Lady Sunshine” (the Tarot reader from the movie) to them: “From one old lady to another. Get over all your shit. Cause it’s later than you think!”
The truth of the matter is that there are just not that many movies spelling out – in a multiple of ways: “fuck it, this is how women in their 50s look like.(When they are not scared shitless of ageing) This is what they think, and are about. Deal with it!” And it is damn refreshing!
In short, this is a movie that understands women. That understands for example that deep down inside, it’s NOT about men! (Someone ought to alert the male screenwriters / directors / producers, already!) And that sometimes, all you need from life, is to sing “Eternal Flame” with your best friends, while wearing your “best muumuu”.
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