Whoever’s behind marketing American wine estates as tourist destinations must be rubbing their hands with glee this week. In cinemas, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are grudgingly lurching their way towards romance in grump-com Destination Wedding. And now on Netflix, Amy Poehler and friends descend on the Napa Valley in Wine Country to discover more about friendship. It’s just as well they’re all not at the same venue: the two parties would never have got on.
That’s not a criticism of either film. They, and their characters, are just very different. Poehler steps behind the camera for the first time in Wine Country to direct this story about six women who’ve been friends for years and, with one of them about to hit 50, come together for a celebratory break on a wine estate. The idea is for a few days of relaxation, wine, fun, wine, catching up and, of course, wine, all on an itinerary painstakingly drawn up by Poehler’s character, Abby. But bringing together such long-standing friends, all with their own lives and issues, isn’t all about celebration. Or wine.
The contents of all those bottles, however, work something like a truth drug for the women, all of whom can be neatly categorised – the control freak, the tactful therapist, the lonely gay, the insecure artist, the one with a big secret, the career woman – but each member of the ensemble cast grabs hold of their respective character, bringing her to life with nothing short of gusto. So it doesn’t take long to establish who is who, often the big challenge for an ensemble. The cast reads something like an SNL reunion, headed by Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch. Which means that comedy is very much to the fore, from the sensitive to the physical to the bawdy. Rudolph, especially, is the star turn here, especially when she decides to provide impromptu entertainment in a bar.
But all of the characters have their moment in the spotlight, comic or otherwise. This is no heart rending Terms Of Endearment, but it is about friendship, specifically female friendships that have lasted a number of years. It shows, sometimes with perhaps too broad a brush stroke, what goes on underneath the surface of such a group – that some are closer than others, that friends you love dearly can drive you round the bend and that nobody ever tells their close friends the absolute truth for fear of damaging the relationship. It’s complicated, just like the people involved and it’s just as complex as any family, blood or otherwise. And, somewhere along the line, the film will chime with your own experience, regardless of gender or age.
If there’s a weak character in the line-up, it’s not among the women. Ironically, it’s mandatory man, Devon (Jason Schwartzman) who “comes with the house” – as cook, tour guide, driver, handyman and providing just about any other service you can think of – yes, that includes sex. He’s not really a character at all, rather a catalyst to help the women sort out their problems and that makes him the least satisfying or convincing person on screen.
With its characters fitting into neat boxes, a certain predictability and a heart that’s a touch too soft for its own good, Wine Country doesn’t have quite the acidity it needs. That said, it’s still a wonderfully funny ensemble piece and one that will move you to tears as well, especially when you reach the moment – whenever it is – which chimes with your own experience. As a film, it’s not so much Netflix and chill as Netflix and chilled wine. Cheers!
Freda Cooper |★★★ 1/2
Comedy, Drama | Netflix , 10 May (2019) | Dir. Amy Poehler | Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Jason Schwartzman.