It may be damning with faint praise to say that Wine Country goes down easy. But it’s hardly a crime against cinema that this amiable ramble with six female friends on a weekend break in Napa Valley does not feel the need to color outside the box. Making her feature directing debut in an ensemble comedy with notes of sweet and melancholy, Amy Poehler doesn’t show off with flashy tricks, preferring to stick close to women, mostly her best friends from Saturday Night Live, who refuse to go gently into Hollywood obsolescence.
Drawing on real life for inspiration, Wine Country is based on an actual trip Poehler and friends took to Napa two years ago to celebrate the 50th birthday of Rachel Dratch. Along for the ride were Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell and Emily Spivey, who wrote the script with Liz Cackowski. Where’s iconic iconic partner-in-crime Tina Fey? She’s there, too, playing Tammy, the Airbnb host who rents her home to this wild bunch. Of course, everyone is playing a fictional version of herself, which is too bad. It’s clear that a verité, fly-on-the-wall record of these SNL livewires on vacation would have made a hilarious documentary.
What we have instead follows the Sitcom 101 formula. Poehler plays Abby, a control freak trying to adjust to life changes by organizing every day in Napa like a military battle plan. (Think Leslie Knope from the Parks and Recreation, but without the optimism.) Dratch is Rebecca the birthday girl, a therapist with a husband the other women not so secretly hate. Gasteyer is Catherine the workaholic who can’t get off her devices. The ever-astonishing Rudolph is Naomi, the one with the kids and a secret. Spivey is Jenny, the one who always has an excuse not to leave home and wishes she had made an excuse for this time. And Pell is Val the lesbian who should know better about the triumph of hope over experience when she hits on a young Napa waitress (Pen15 creator and star Maya Erskine).
Job loss, marital strife and health crises are thrown into the mix. So is sex. The long, long pause Poehler gives Jason Schwartzman as Devon, the cook who comes with the house, when he asks Abby if she wants to have sex is a dynamite display of Poehler’s priceless comic timing. Still, it’s clear that the ensemble comedy doesn’t have the time or inclination to give each character more than one readily identifiable trait.
You’d be wrong to think that Wine Country is too smart to let the women interrupt their lockstep series of arguments and reconciliations to rock out to ’90’s nostalgia tunes. Of course they do. And when boredom creeps in, Poehler simply instructs each member of her cast to roll down a hill. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. That it isn’t (quite) is thanks to Poehler’s unquenchable affection for the women she’s acting with and directing. She seems to think that the pleasure of their company is enough. She’s right.