There was a little bit of magic floating in the air at “SNL” during the early aughts. Though the show has been on air since 1975, a fresh cast produced a dose of fresh air in the new millennium, infused by incredible women like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch.
These women each offered something unique, both in the writers’ room and in the characters they brought to life, and together they formed a comedy dream team. In Netflix’s “Wine Country,” they are reunited once more, with Poehler at the helm in her feature film directorial debut. While the magic may be a bit less sparkly nowadays, the film nonetheless delivers a smart, witty and pretty damn realistic view of women in their 50s: their attitudes and their friendships.
Abby (Poehler), Rebecca (Dratch), Catherine (Gasteyer), Val (Paula Pell, “Documentary Now!”), Jenny (Emily Spivey), and Naomi (Rudolph) have been friends since their college days. It’s Rebecca’s 50th birthday, and the group decides to get away to Napa Valley to see each other, to have some quality time together, and to get a little tipsy in the process. But each woman has something they are holding back, and their desire not to hurt each other with some devastating reveals causes miscommunications and misadventures.
With a cast that boasts some of the funniest women in comedy, expectation can be quite high, but co-writers Spivey and Liz Cackowski, both “SNL” vets, know the cast they’re writing for so well, that it enhances the perspective of the script. Poehler’s not doing a “Weekend Update” routine, she’s Abby, a 50-year-old woman facing a change in her once-very-settled life, trying to unwind with her best friends while being afraid and falling apart. There’s comedy here, but there’s also the complex layers of each woman, and the connection that only women who have known each other for so long could have. Rather than settle for stereotypes of what an aging woman might look or feel like, the script offers real, relatable moments like inside jokes quipping, “Things we say now” or “May I offer you some feedback.”
I saw a piece of myself in each woman, and texted a friend of mine to fondly recall our own mini-getaway where one of us (me) ended up with a neck spasm after attempting to dance the night away as we once had in our 20s — things definitely do not move the same in your 40s — and then, despite all our plans, spending the rest of the trip online shopping by the pool and loving it. That’s the feeling that Spivey and Cackowski uncover and what director Poehler zones in on: By knowing her cast intimately, Poehler tailors the film to each individual cast member’s wit and character build.
The entire ensemble is a delight, but I especially loved watching Spivey and Rudolph. Rudolph’s Naomi faces a very real and scary medical issue, but as a mom, she continues to focus on everyone but herself as a way to avoid the worst possibilities. Spivey’s Jenny is the friend who’s seemingly always judgy and pessimistic, but that judginess ultimately comes from a place of love and care, which only those closest to her can see. Perhaps it’s because I am most like these two characters that I was really drawn to them, but Rudolph and Spivey make them both true and entertaining.
That being said, there are some lags in the second act, where the editing was a bit unbalanced in focus. I love Fey, but I’m not sure she was really needed for her few minutes of screentime. Neither detracts from the film as a whole, but the script might have benefited from a little more time spent strengthening the characters and touching up the dialogue.
Of course, you can’t name a film “Wine Country” without evoking the beauty of the Napa Valley. Cinematographer Tim Magill (a “Parks and Rec” alum) serves up both stunning views of the vineyards and the tourist-small-town feel of Napa. It’s the latter coziness that invites the viewer to curl up on a couch with best friends and bottle of Rosé to enjoy a night of conversation, connection and comedy.
Turning 50 used to be the end of an actress’ career in Hollywood, and in life, a sign she was long past her expiration date. “Wine Country” shows that women in their 50s are in one of the best phases of their lives, a time to be celebrated, welcomed, and enjoyed with good friends and good wine.