All comedy is subjective. You either find something funny or you don’t — and there’s no way to talk someone out of their particular viewpoint. But even so, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar is an acquired taste. It’s a movie that goes for laughs in the strangest places. There’s a crab that talks — and sounds like Morgan Freeman. There’s a whole bit about the backstory of an imaginary character named Trish. There’s a spy who’s singularly terrible at his job, constantly revealing stuff about himself and then saying, “Damn it!” each time he realizes his screwup. And, of course, there’s Barb and Star, two maniacally enthusiastic fortysomething best friends with hair-sprayed ‘dos who love their culottes. But all that barely scratches the surface of the weirdness embedded in this romantic comedy/spy thriller/buddy movie/occasional musical. Sometimes you laugh, and sometimes you just sit there wondering what the hell is going on.
I imagine that, for the filmmakers, either reaction is perfectly welcome. Barb & Star is very much a WTF comedy — a movie that’s not only meant to be bizarre but, also, to provoke you by how bizarre it is. This century, we’ve had a fair share of anti-humor films and TV shows, but Barb & Star might be the warmest. It proudly lives in its own surreal universe, and you’re either on its wavelength or you’re not. I was about half the time, which is pretty good considering my track record with WTF comedy. I always get stuck asking myself the same question: When is bizarre too bizarre?
The movie is the brainchild of Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, who were Oscar-nominated for their terrific Bridesmaids screenplay and have been collaborating since they were part of the Groundlings about 20 years ago. They play Barb and Star, who are buddies living in small-town Nebraska. Barb’s husband has been dead for a while, and Star’s husband left her, but they so enjoy each other’s company they fill that void with their friendship. Speaking in flat, peppy Midwestern accents — in the press notes, Wiig says, “They were kind of like our ‘mom’ voices,” although they’re childless — Barb and Star are characters that they’ve been developing since the Bridesmaids days. There’s nothing hip or sophisticated about Barb and Star — they’re plenty excited to work at the mall and definitely don’t social media. (They may not even know what social media is.) But after they lose their jobs, they decide to go on a vacation to Vista Del Mar, Florida, which they’ve been told is a paradise on earth. It’s indicative of how uncool Barb and Star are that when they arrive in this very rinky-dink, tourist-trap town, they’re blown away by how exotic and magical it is. It’s a sign of the film’s bighearted spirit that you love these normies anyway.
You know Barb & Star is a WTF comedy immediately because, even before we meet the main characters, we’re hurtled into the secret lair of Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also Wiig), a deeply pale supervillain who plans on unleashing a horde of lethal mosquitoes on Vista Del Mar. (Her reasons? Well, that involves a flashback we’ll see later concerning, inexplicably, a beauty pageant.) Rocking white makeup and an almost pageboy hairdo, Wiig plays Sharon like a Cate Blanchett dress-up act, even mimicking the Oscar-winning actress’ exaggerated speech patterns. Sharon isn’t bent on world domination — she just really hates Vista Del Mar. In fact, she hates Vista Del Mar about as much as she loves drinking suicides, which is good considering she has a soda fountain installed in her secret lair.
This is also where we meet Edgar (Jamie Dornan), her loyal right-hand man who not-so-secretly pines for her. (One of the film’s best running jokes is how much he wants them to be “official” as a couple — something Sharon isn’t remotely interested in pursuing.) Edgar will travel to Vista Del Mar to ensure that the mosquito plan works. But while he’s undercover, he’ll befriend Barb and Star. Actually, they all get drunk on girlie drinks and sleep together. And then Barb and Star both start courting him, which results in not one but two parodies of the getting-to-know-you-date scene from romantic comedies. Around that time, Edgar also launches into a musical number about his desire for Sharon. By the way, it’s clear Dornan isn’t actually singing in that sequence. Rest assured the movie makes no attempt to convince us otherwise.
Generally speaking, the idea behind anti-humor is to challenge a square audience’s expectation that they’re entitled to being entertained — it eschews the make-’em-laugh ingratiating spirit that’s endemic to traditional show business. Whether it’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or A Deadly Adoption, you’re meant to be a bit baffled: What the hell is this? In terms of mainstreaming WTF comedy, Will Ferrell probably deserves more credit than anyone. (The fact that he actually got money to make Casa de mi padre, which is nothing but a straight-faced sendup of telenovelas, in Spanish, still blows my mind.) But Wiig isn’t too far behind Ferrell, who’s a frequent collaborator. (Not only did they star in A Deadly Adoption together, but his production company Gloria Sanchez Productions backed Barb & Star.)
In hindsight, that’s what’s so unusual about Bridesmaids: By Wiig’s wonderfully out-there standards, it’s shockingly conventional. If you think of some of her best-known Saturday Night Live characters — Gilly or Dooneese, the frightening singing sister who terrorizes Lawrence Welk — she loves being a bit antagonistic and willfully odd. She doesn’t want you feeling that comfortable with what you’re watching, and the weirder the bit gets, the better. Although it’s mostly playful and upbeat, Barb & Star seems much more aligned to her sensibilities than Bridesmaids. Random jokes come out of nowhere. Callbacks that you never would have imagined happening strike without warning. When reviewing The Naked Gun, Roger Ebert praised it by saying, “You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing.” In Barb & Star, it’s like that, but slightly different. You’re confused by what you just saw — and then you laugh (maybe) because you can’t believe they tried to get away with it.
I laughed a decent amount in Barb & Star — special shout-out to Damon Wayans Jr. as Darlie Bunkle, the terrible spy, who’s funny each time he shows up — and I just enjoyed being around Barb and Star. Mumolo and Wiig play these characters with sweet affection, and they clearly relish exploring the weirdness beneath their Midwesterners’ chipper, placid surface. (Although it’s never acknowledged, what’s clever about casting Dornan, who was the incredibly stiff-but-handsome Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey films is that, obviously, those are the kinds of books Barb and Star would devour. Of course Edgar is their dream man.)
But on the whole, I tend to appreciate WTF comedy more than really love it. I get what’s supposed to be funny — I can tell what’s being deconstructed and understand what’s so surreal about the setup — but often the absurdist results are so hit-or-miss that it’s hard for the film to have much comic momentum. (This was one of my big problems with last year’s Eurovision Song Contest: I didn’t find the film’s targets especially hilarious, and the off-the-wall digressions didn’t do much to help.) What keeps WTF comedies from fully connecting for me is that I’m too much of a sucker for those old normie filmmaking elements, like a good story. And for all its off-kilter asides and scattershot strangeness, what holds Barb & Star together is so slim that the whole thing threatens to break apart at a moment’s notice.
For both Wiig and Ferrell, what was great about working in sketch comedy was that the compact running time allowed their absurdist streak to be a quick-strike offensive — get in and get out, super-fast. With a full-length movie, it’s tougher to sustain that precisely peculiar tone, and you can feel Barb & Star sag when its jokes start flailing. (And, good sport that he is, Dornan’s comedic turn doesn’t entirely convince me that he’s not the stiff we saw in Fifty Shades.)
A day after seeing Barb & Star, I started thinking about Barb and Star — and what they would think of this movie. Probably be too weird for them, I imagined. They’d keep wondering what that whole Morgan Freeman crab was about. I could just hear them asking each other, “And what were all those musical numbers??!” But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I had that wrong. For all its WTF-ness, what’s most subversive about this movie is its suggestion that normies like Barb and Star might be less basic than we assume. In Barb & Star, they have threesomes, get involved in chase scenes and even go on that banana-boat ride they’d always talked about. That sounds like pretty edgy people to me. Who knows: They might even be hip enough to be Kristen Wiig fans.