At a glance, one would assume director Josh Greenbaum’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is the Bridesmaids (2011) reunion audiences have anticipated for a decade now. Screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are back with a new script, and the two co-star along with recognizable bit players such as Wendi McLendon-Covey, Michael Hitchcock, and Jordan Black. A few minutes into the film, though, it’s clear that this is only a reunion and not a follow-up: Gone is the grounded, relatable everywoman comedy that made Bridesmaids more than a quarter-billion dollars at the box office. Same goes for that loose, overlong plotting that can only be described as Apatow-esque. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar does everything in its power to avoid a sophomore slump by going totally unhinged, abandoning Bridesmaids’ two-handed gross-out-dramedy approach in favor of something entirely different: an absurdist comedy gleefully unmoored from reality.
Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb’s “Guilty” blasts through the headphones of an unassuming young boy (Reyn Doi) as he delivers papers on an idyllic suburban street. He brakes in front of an empty home, hesitates a moment, and then tosses the last paper from the basket. After it lands on the porch with a thud, he rides off and continues singing. A peculiar intro, to be sure, but it’s the least strange thing the audience will see for the next 100-ish minutes. Now in a remote field, the boy stops at a tree where a full-body scanner surveys him up and down James Bond-style. A portal opens, and he’s whisked down to a menacing underground lair. The boy, named Yoyo, has planted a bomb on the doorstep of the elderly scientist (Patrick Bristow) who engineered the killer mosquitos that the horrifyingly pale villain Sharon Gordon Fisherman (Wiig, pulling double duty) will use to wreak havoc on the small Florida town that humiliated her in her formative years. She sends her right-hand man, Edgar (Jamie Dornan), to plant the device and goes back to doing whatever it is that supervillains do in the in-between.
A thousand miles away, somewhere in rural Nebraska, Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig again) go about their daily routine: drinking tea and lightly tapping their toes (and hands, and shoulders, and heads) to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” while they hog the floor model of an outdated sofa at the furniture store where they work. Their boss calls them into his office and lets them know that they’re getting laid off — headquarters closed seven months prior and forgot to tell them. The news comes as a real shock to the ladies, but on the plus side, it also comes with a nice severance check. When their bad day takes a turn for the worse, they decide to step way outside their comfort zones and go on a trip to Vista Del Mar — the same place that Sharon Gordon Fisherman plans to wipe out.
It’s hard to overstate how refreshingly unique this film feels. Imagine Harry and Lloyd from Dumb & Dumber (1994) getting caught up in one of Dr. Evil’s schemes from the Austin Powers trilogy, then switch the genders. This only gets a fraction of the way to explaining Barb and Star’s whole shtick. To get a better idea of the full picture, add in some Adult Swim-style surreality, plenty of bright Floridian pastels, a campy soundtrack of golden oldies and deep cuts alike, and a band of weirdo tourists and locals. Still, Barb and Star really has to be seen to be fully comprehended. It’s impressive, honestly — it would have been very easy for Wiig and Mumolo to cash in on the success of Bridesmaids and churn out an uninspired and derivative Apatow offshoot with someone like Paul Feig at the helm, but instead, the pair chose to write something that is unmistakably their own for a relatively unknown director.
It ends up feeling like the cinematic equivalent to the kinds of indescribably odd Saturday Night Live sketches Wiig would appear in after the second musical performance when she and her castmates were operating at their peaks in the late 2000s. As such, it’s only fitting that Barb and Star would immediately rank among the Lonely Island and Will Forte’s criminally underrated instant cult classics Hot Rod (2007), MacGruber (2010), and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). (Not to mention the direct-to-VOD treatment because of Covid-19’s impact on the theatrical release schedule means that its box office gross will be similarly puny.) Thankfully, numbers mean less in times like these. Barb and Star won’t get to play on the big screen presently, but it’ll make up for it in the back end with the countless midnight and repertory screenings it’s destined to enjoy in the years to come.
From the start, viewers will either be instantly locked in or completely turned off by this kind of goofy comedy. It doesn’t sneak up on watchers, it doesn’t try to ease them into things, and it doesn’t disguise itself as one thing only to pull the curtain later on: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar puts it all out on the table where audiences can take it or leave it. Not every joke lands, not every set piece is as fleshed out as can be, and not every supporting character can keep up with what Wiig and Mumolo are doing here, but the end result is still more frequently funny than any studio comedy in the past several years. Comedy is constantly changing to suit the world around it, and for this reason, medium-budget comedies look a whole lot different now than they did back in 2011. Somehow, Wiig and Mumolo have managed to be at the forefront of the genre two decades in a row. Even if it takes another 10 years to see a third effort from this pair, it’ll be well worth the wait.
Barb and Star Go Vista Del Mar is now available to rent from major online platforms.